When Attorney General William P. Barr announced the ousting of Geoffrey Berman — the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — Barr also announced his permanent replacement would be Jay Clayton, the current chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The announcement raised questions about whether there might be some political objective behind the move.
But while there may be some political motivations, there is a simpler explanation for Clayton’s selection: He’s the latest unqualified white guy to get promoted in the Trump administration. Tapping Clayton may be unique in the particulars, but it is no surprise in an area of the law where the practitioners are predominantly white men and one in which it is far easier to get ahead as a white man.
Clayton would easily be the least qualified person to hold the job as U.S. attorney in the Southern District in modern history. For nearly the last 30 years, every U.S. attorney had served a meaningful stint as a federal prosecutor, something Clayton never has.
Instead, he spent his entire career as a transactional lawyer — advising corporate clients like Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs on corporate deals and assisting companies with initial public offerings — at Sullivan & Cromwell, a large law firm based in New York City. That is not an easy job, but it requires a skill set that is distinct from what is required to be a good litigator — writing effective briefs, speaking well “on your feet,” crafting compelling narratives from facts, being persuasive at trial. In fact, there is no evidence that Clayton has ever thought about criminal law or criminal justice issues in his roughly 30-year career.
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