Jaime Esparza

Jaime Esparza, who is about to step down as El Paso’s district attorney after 28 years, is seeking to be appointed as the top federal prosecutor in West Texas.

Esparza, 63, says he has applied with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team to be appointed as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, a region that extends from San Antonio to El Paso and includes a huge swath of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I’m qualified, I have lots of experience and I have a good grasp of  the criminal justice system system,” Esparza said. He chose not to seek re-election this year after serving seven terms as district attorney.

Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso wrote a letter to Biden on Wednesday supporting Esparza’s appointment as U.S. attorney. She said Esparza would be “an exemplary U.S. attorney” who can help Biden “rebuild the trust and faith of the American judicial system that has been eroded over the last four years.”

Rep. Veronica Escobar

Escobar also said appointing an El Pasoan to the position would send an important message of change.

“Mr. Esparza has lived and worked in El Paso most of his life, and as you know, El Paso has been the epicenter for some of the cruelest policies implemented by the Trump administration. We were the testing ground for the administration’s family separation policy, a policy furthered by the former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas,” she wrote. “We were also the site of the deadliest targeted attacks against Latinos in modern American history, and attack of domestic terrorism that took 23 lives, injured 22 and devastated our peaceful community. It would be powerfully fitting for the Western District of Texas to be led by an El Pasoan as we repair the injustices of the past four years.

Esparza said he also has received support from the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas Council on Family Violence. 

The Justice Department has 94 U.S. attorneys who lead regional prosecution offices, which handle federal criminal and civil cases. The U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas is based in San Antonio and oversees offices in El Paso, Alpine, Pecos, Midland, Del Rio, Austin and Waco.

The position usually requires a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. However, the current U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, Gregg Sofer, was appointed by Attorney General William Barr and can serve for up to 120 days. John Bash was appointed by President Trump to the position and confirmed by the Senate, but resigned in October.

Incoming presidents generally replace most U.S. attorneys in their first few months on the job, especially when the White House changes parties. 

U.S. attorney positions are considered among the most prestigious appointments for lawyers, and vacancies usually draw large numbers of applicants.

The last El Pasoan nominated by a president and confirmed by the Senate to be U.S. attorney from the Western District of Texas was Ron Ederer. He was nominated by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and served until 1993.

The bulk of cases in the Western District of Texas involve alleged immigration violations, but the office also handles crime such as drug trafficking, bank robberies, fraud and hate crimes.

The most prominent case now being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas is the Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart by an alleged white supremacist. The gunman also faces state charges.

Esparza has said repeatedly that state prosecutors should have priority in prosecuting a hate crime that shook El Paso. His successor, Yvonne Rosales, has said it makes sense for federal prosecutors to go first

The outgoing DA says his views on local prosecutors getting priority in the Walmart case wouldn’t change if he is named U.S. attorney

“In this (district attorney’s) office, it is the most important case,” he said.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.