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Understated Justice Department Lawyer Emerges As Key Player

He's argued controversial cases involving same-sex marriage, the secrecy of the U.S. drone campaign, and the legality of the bulk-surveillance programs for American phone records. But he's still far from a household name. Now, though, with his recent promotion to serve as the third in command at the Justice Department, Stuart Delery is inching out of the shadows.

Delery, 45, the acting associate attorney general, oversees a vast portfolio that spans civil rights investigations of police departments, environmental crimes, mortgage fraud, consumer protection and billions of dollars in federal grants that the Justice Department administers. He also may be the highest-ranking openly gay lawyer to ever work there.

As acting associate attorney general, Stuart Delery oversees the largest litigating division in the Department of Justice. Department of Justice hide caption

toggle caption Department of Justice

Within the government, Delery may be best known for leading an effort to implement the Supreme Court's ruling in U.S. v. Windsor. The high court used that case to declare unconstitutional part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines the institution as between one man and one woman. Last summer, the Delery-led task force concluded its work, and now, he says, "wherever possible, same-sex married couples have the same access to federal benefits and responsibilities as their opposite-sex counterparts."

"It was an unusual project and a satisfying one because it brought a wide range of lawyers here at the Department of Justice in partnership with our counterparts at agencies all across the government, to make the promise of the Windsor decision real, to take the decision in favor of equality that the Supreme Court handed down and to extend that, make it real, for the very concrete benefits that have real impact on the real lives of people across the country," Delery said in an interview with NPR.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced last week he'd step down once a successor is confirmed by the Senate, says the Justice Department will weigh in on the side of full equality, and a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage, if the Supreme Court agrees to hear such a case this term.

Delery defers to the statements of his boss on that front. But there's no doubt the issue carries a special resonance for him. In his Senate confirmation hearing to run the DOJ civil division in 2013, Delery went off script to thank his husband, Richard Gervase, a one-time classmate at Yale Law School, and their two sons.

"My family is the most important thing in the world to me," Delery told NPR. "One of the critical insights ... of the Windsor decision from the Supreme Court was that same-sex married couples face the same joys and challenges as their opposite-sex married neighbors."

That focus on the lives of real people suffuses his to-do list at Justice.

"Protecting the safety of the food that we eat and the medicine we take is a critical priority for the department and for me personally," Delery says.

Just last month, Delery notes, a federal jury in Georgia convicted the former chief executive and two other officials at the Peanut Corporation of America in connection with a widespread salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that sickened more than 700 people.

"We hope this verdict sends a message to executives of the corporations that make much of the food that we eat that they can't put the bottom line ahead of the safety of consumers and the public," he adds.

Another top priority for Delery is protecting service members and their families from predatory lending for homes, cars and for-profit schools. He says the Justice Department has been working with the Pentagon and state and federal prosecutors to get the word out about some of those scams "and hold people accountable for what they're doing."

Over the past few years, using a Civil War-era-whistleblower law known as the False Claims Act, Delery says the department has posted record financial recoveries for health care fraud, procurement fraud and financial fraud — cases that he says are important to ensure not only that taxpayers are getting what they pay for, but also to make sure the services, especially medical services, that they receive in exchange are safe and effective.

Civil cases with banks involved in the 2008 financial crisis are still underway, Delery says.

Former DOJ official Tom Perrelli, who served as associate attorney general for more than two years in the Obama administration, credits Delery's success to his being easy to work with, in terms of both style and substance.

"Stuart's really the consummate professional — what they call a lawyer's lawyer," Perrelli says. "He is very substantive on the issues he works on."

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