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Van de Kamp will receive Witkin Medal

John Van de Kamp
Van de Kamp

John Van de Kamp reacted with characteristic understatement when he learned he is the recipient of an award presented to California’s “legal giants”: he said he is grateful. It is “particularly nice,” he added, “to follow in the footsteps of some good people.” Indeed.

Van de Kamp, former California Attorney General, Los Angeles District Attorney, Federal Public Defender for Los Angeles and State Bar President, received the State Bar’s Bernard E. Witkin Medal for 2008, an award that is conferred on people “who, through a career of extraordinary service, have made significant contributions to the quality of justice and legal scholarship in our state.”

“John has done more than make his mark on the California legal system; he’s become a symbol of that system” said former State Bar President Jeff Bleich, who joined the board of governors when Van de Kamp served as the bar’s 80th president. “He is as dedicated to justice for all as he ever has been and he stands as a model for us all.”

A graduate of Stanford Law School, Van de Kamp, 72, has spent most of his professional life in public service, including two terms as attorney general. While in that post, he created the Public Rights Division, which fought to enforce antitrust laws and statutes protecting consumers, civil rights and the environment. He took an active role in fighting for affirmative action, in opposing discrimination against AIDS patients and in opening private clubs to minorities and women. He fought to protect Lake Tahoe and establish a moratorium on oil drilling off the California coast. Van de Kamp also devised Fast Track — the Trial Court Delay Reduction Act — and implemented the CAL-ID Computerized Finger-print Program.

Van de Kamp said Witkin was a friend who had followed his career closely. “After I retired from public life, he gave me an entire set of his books,” he said. “I’m eternally grateful to him.” In his latest role as a mediator and arbitrator, he refers to the Witkin treatises frequently, brushing up on issues he hadn’t looked at since law school.

Prior to his eight years in Sacramento, Van de Kamp served as U.S. Attorney and the first Federal Public Defender in Los Angeles, director of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys in Washington, D.C., and two terms as Los Angeles District Attorney.

He said he has received the most satisfaction over the years “from my public law career, where I’d like to think in every office I was involved in, people had very good memories of the way they were treated . . . I tried to work with people and be fair to people.”

Van de Kamp recently chaired the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a diverse group of criminal justice experts that achieved more than 90 percent unanimity in its recommendations regarding the death penalty. Gerald Uelmen, executive director of the commission, said its task was “monumental,” and he attributed the panel’s unanimity to Van de Kamp’s skills as a mediator. “He gets people to listen to each other,” he said.

Uelmen, who has known Van de Kamp since 1966 when he worked for him in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, also chaired the Witkin selection committee, whose task was to look at a body of service to the law in California. “It’s to find anyone who has amassed for such a long period of time such a consistent dedication and service to the law,” Uelmen said. “You’d think somebody who did all that he’s done would retire and live off his glory,” but Van de Kamp continues to pursue public service.

Currently of counsel with Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, Van de Kamp handles arbitrations and mediations through ADR Services Inc., mediates a few cases a month on a pro bono basis for the superior court and continues with his numerous charitable and community service activities.

 He recently concluded an appointment as monitor of the Getty Trust and now is advising the president of the SEIU in an internal investigation of the financial practices of the Los Angeles local.

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