Hickton picked for U.S. attorney

Pittsburgh lawyer's nomination must be confirmed by Senate

Pittsburgh attorney David J. Hickton had at least two reasons to celebrate on Thursday.

He was marking the graduation of his son, Danny, from Central Catholic High School at a baccalaureate Mass at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland.

And President Barack Obama nominated him to be the new U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Hickton, 54, of Thornburg, is one of the founders of his law firm, Burns, White & Hickton. He was on his way to Mass with his son when the news broke.

"I'm honored by the nomination of President Obama," he said. "I look forward to working with the Senate in the confirmation process."

Mr. Hickton would not discuss the nomination or what his plans as U.S. attorney will be if he is confirmed.

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter sent Mr. Hickton's name to the White House months ago. Since then, he has gone through a lengthy vetting process for the four-year term. Mr. Hickton is the last of Pennsylvania's three U.S. attorneys to be nominated.

The others were named in April.

Mr. Casey, in his statement, praised Mr. Hickton's "extensive experience in both criminal and civil law: He's handled many big cases. He has the experience, integrity and judgment to serve the people of Western Pennsylvania and the country with distinction."

Mr. Specter agreed.

"David Hickton has strong credentials and a proven record of integrity," he said in a statement.

The confirmation process for U.S. attorneys is typically a formality, and it is expected to be swift.

Former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman called Mr. Hickton "an outstanding choice."

"It's a terrific day for the office," he said. "I think his experience and stature in the community will allow the office to maximize the contribution federal law enforcement can make in the people's lives of the district."

Mr. Litman, who was familiar with the nomination process, said that Mr. Hickton brings to the position a vigorous leadership style, moral depth and maturity.

"He has a sober sense of the good and bad federal prosecutorial power can do," Mr. Litman said. "He'll always exercise the vast powers of the office for the right reasons and only the right reasons."

Mr. Hickton represented former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy in a federal investigation regarding his handling of a contract with city firefighters in 2001.

Mr. Murphy designed a contract that prompted the firefighters union to change its mayoral endorsement from then-City Council President Bob O'Connor to himself.

Former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan never filed charges against Mr. Murphy, but she didn't formally clear him either. Instead, he agreed to cooperate with authorities in identifying flaws in Pennsylvania's collective bargaining law.

Mr. Hickton's father, Jack, was appointed as the Allegheny County District Attorney and served in that office for 18 months from 1974 to 1976.

Though Mr. Hickton does not bring any prosecutorial experience to the office, Ken Gormley, the dean of Duquesne University's School of Law, said it doesn't matter.

"He understands that a prosecutor has to protect the constitutional rights of the accused rather than simply charge forward just to gain convictions," Mr. Gormley said. "When you're the top prosecutor, judgment is the most important commodity."

Further, he continued, it is often valuable to get an outsider into the U.S. attorney's office to set a new direction and tone.

Mr. Hickton is widely respected as a lawyer, said Jim Burn, a fellow attorney and the chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.

"It's always been a pleasure to work with him and a challenge to work against him," Mr. Burn said.

Further, he credited Mr. Hickton's service to the community.

"He brings passion to every issue he engages in," Mr. Burn said. "He's a good consensus builder."

As U.S. attorney, Mr. Hickton would be the highest-ranking federal law enforcement officer in Western Pennsylvania. The office prosecutes federal crimes, oversees civil rights investigations and prosecutes and defends the United States in cases in which it is named as a party for 25 counties stretching from Erie to Johnstown.

Mr. Hickton has been active in Democratic politics locally and nationally. His name surfaced as the frontrunner for the U.S. attorney position in October, but it appeared the process was on hold for months.

As of May 6, 67 of the 93 U.S. attorney candidates across the country had been nominated.

If confirmed, Mr. Hickton will replace Ms. Buchanan, who left office in November. Robert S. Cessar has served as acting U.S. attorney since then.

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. Daniel Malloy: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 1-202-445-9980. First Published May 21, 2010 4:00 AM


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