Law School alumnus Damian Williams becomes first Black U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of NY
Yale Law School alumnus is sworn in to powerful prosecutorial position in New York City.
Madelyn Kumar, Contributing Photographer
Damian Williams LAW ’07 was sworn in as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, becoming the first Black man to hold the role.
On Oct. 10, Williams assumed the role. He is the first African American to hold the position in the 232-year history of the Southern District of New York, which is the federal district court for New York State. The district includes eight counties — two of which are in New York City. The American Bar Association has called the Southern District of New York the “Mother Court” due to its expansive jurisdiction over Wall Street and many of the most powerful companies in the country.
“Damian Williams is a brilliant lawyer whom I have had the privilege of teaching and mentoring,” Heather Gerken, the Dean of Yale Law School, told the News in her capacity as a mentor for Williams. “His tenacious commitment to justice will make him an excellent U.S. Attorney and I’m very happy to see this historic appointment.”
Williams served as a co-chief of the Organized Securities Fraud Unit within the Southern District of New York prior to his appointment as US Attorney for the district. The New York Times reported that President Biden broke modern precedent by appointing Williams, given that the U.S. Attorney for the district is typically hired from outside the office — unlike Wiliams, who has been working there since 2012.
Prior to joining the U.S. Attorney’s office for the SDNY, Williams clerked for then-U.S. D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland as well as Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, lawyer Ted Wells told the News. After Williams completed his clerkships in D.C., Wells hired him to be his associate at the corporate law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
“I could immediately see he was special,” Wells said. “Not only was he empathetic and kind, he had a deep knowledge of the law as well as an impeccable work ethic.”
Wells and Williams worked together while representing former Governor of New York David Paterson against charges alleging that Paterson had tampered with a witness during a sexual assault investigation, Wells said.
Wells explained that this case was significant due to the fact that “the first African American governor of New York was almost immediately slapped with an investigation.” However, through the course of this work, Wells said that he could see that Williams could potentially be a “person of consequence in society.”
Williams then joined the Southern District of New York under former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, where he worked specifically within the Financial Crimes unit. Williams’ cases included successful convictions against Republican Rep. Chris Collins and former Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver.
Williams is now the first Black U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Only seven of the district’s 232 assistant U.S. attorneys are Black.
Wells said he believes Williams will work to improve diversity within the office by hiring more lawyers of color. In addition, Wells expects that Williams will work to improve relations between law enforcement and communities of color within New York City.
“[Williams] recognizes that there is a lack of trust between the African American community and the law enforcement community, and he’s sensitive to that,” Wells added. “I suspect that he will try to put more boots on the ground in terms of having both himself and senior people in his office be visible in the African American community and communicate that law enforcement is sensitive to the issues of social justice and criminal justice reform.”
According to former Dean of Yale Law School Harold Koh, Williams’ strong commitment to social justice can be traced back to his time serving as a Public Editor for the Yale Law Journal while in law school. Koh said that Williams took this position after a controversy involving an article that the Journal published in which the author, a law student at another school, had made comments that could be considered racial slurs.
“He already commanded everyone’s respect because he could listen to all sides and de-escalate the situation,” Koh said while explaining why Williams was appointed to the position.
According to Koh, throughout his time at Yale Law School, Williams earned the admiration of many of his peers.
“I think [his peers] revered him.” Koh said. “I do remember the Black Law Students Association all had a graduating dinner, and they said that Obama was a rough draft for Damian. They knew they were looking at someone who has an Obama level talent and future.”
Former U.S. Attorneys for the Southern District of New York include former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Director of the FBI James Comey.