William P. Barr

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William Pelham Barr
William Barr, official photo as Attorney General.jpg
77th United States Attorney General
In office
November 26, 1991 – January 20, 1993
President George H. W. Bush
Preceded by Dick Thornburgh
Succeeded by Janet Reno
United States Deputy Attorney General
In office
May 1990 – November 26, 1991
President George H.W. Bush
Preceded by Donald B. Ayer
Succeeded by George J. Terwilliger III
Personal details
Born (1950-05-23) May 23, 1950 (age 68)
New York City, New York
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Christine
Alma mater Columbia University
George Washington University Law School
Religion Roman Catholic

William Pelham Barr (born May 23, 1950) is an American attorney who served as the 77th Attorney General of the United States.

Early life and education

Barr was born in New York City. The son of Columbia University faculty members Mary and Donald Barr, he grew up on the Upper West Side, attended the Corpus Christi School and Horace Mann School. He received his bachelor's degree in government in 1971 and a master's degree in government and Chinese studies in 1973, both from Columbia University. He received his J.D. with highest honors in 1977 from the George Washington University Law School.[1]


From 1973 to 1977, he was employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Barr was a law clerk to Judge Malcolm Wilkey of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 1977 through 1978. He served on the domestic policy staff at the Reagan White House from 1982 to 1983. He was also in private practice for nine years with the Washington law firm of Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge.[2]

In 1989, at the outset of his administration, President George H. W. Bush appointed Barr to the U.S. Department of Justice as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, an office which functions as the legal advisor to the President and executive branch agencies. Barr was known as a strong defender of Presidential power and wrote advisory opinions justifying the U.S. invasion of Panama and arrest of Manuel Noriega, and a controversial opinion that the F.B.I. could enter onto foreign soil without the consent of the host government to apprehend fugitives wanted for terrorism or drug-trafficking.[3]

In May 1990, Barr was appointed Deputy Attorney General, the official responsible for day-to-day management of the Department. According to media reports, Barr generally got high marks for his professional running of the Department.[4]

In August 1991, when then-Attorney General Richard Thornburgh resigned to run for the Senate, Barr was named Acting Attorney General.[5] Three days after Barr moved into that position, 121 Cuban inmates, awaiting deportation to Cuba as extremely violent criminals, seized 9 hostages at the Talladega federal prison. Barr directed the F.B.I.'s Hostage Rescue Team to carry out an assault on the prison, which resulted in rescuing all hostages without loss of life.[6] It was reported that President Bush was impressed with Barr's handling of the hostage crisis, and weeks later, President Bush nominated him as Attorney General.[7]

Barr's two-day confirmation hearing was "unusually placid,"and he received a "warm reception" from both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. [8] Asked whether he thought a constitutional right to privacy included the right to an abortion, Barr responded that he believed the constitution was not originally intended to create a right to abortion; that Roe v. Wade was thus wrongly decided; and that abortion should be a "legitimate issue for state legislators" to deal with.[8] Committee Chairman, Senator Joe Biden, though disagreeing with Barr, responded that it was the "first candid answer" he had heard from a nominee on a question that witnesses would normally evade.[9] Barr was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Chairman Biden hailed Barr as "a throwback to the days when we actually had attorneys general that would talk to you." [10]

The media described Barr as staunchly conservative.[11] The New York Times described the "central theme" of his tenure to be: "his contention that violent crime can be reduced only by expanding Federal and state prisons to jail habitual violent offenders."[11] At the same time, reporters consistently describe Barr as affable with a dry, self-deprecating wit.[12]

After leaving the Department of Justice, Barr spent over 14 years in senior corporate positions. At the end of 2008 he retired from Verizon Communications, having served as Executive Vice President and General Counsel of GTE Corporation from 1994 until that company merged with Bell Atlantic to become Verizon. During his corporate tenure, Barr led a successful litigation campaign by the local phone industry to achieve deregulation by scuttling a series of FCC rules, personally arguring several key cases in the federal courts of appeals and the Supreme Court.[13] Barr currently serves on several corporate boards.

In his home state of Virginia, Barr was appointed in 1994 by then-Governor George Allen to co-chair a commission to reform the criminal justice system and abolish parole in the state.[14] He also served on the Board of Visitors of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg from 1997 to 2005.[15]

Personal life

Barr is an avid bagpiper, an avocation he began at the age of 8, and has played competitively in Scotland with a leading American pipe band.[16]

Barr is a Roman Catholic. He married Christine Moynihan in June 1973, and they have three grown daughters. He is a resident of McLean, VA.


  1. Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Former Attorney General and Verizon General Counsel Joins Kirkland & Ellis LLP (press release). January 7, 2009.
  2. 1992 Current Biography Yearbook, page 51–52
  3. LaFraniere, Sharon, "For Nominee Barr, an Unusual Path to Attorney General's Office", The Washington Post, November 12, 1991, page A6.
  4. Johnston, David, "Political Lifeguard at the Department of Justice", The New York Times, August 30, 1990, page B8. Maureen Santini, "New Yorker Tapped", Daily News, October 17, 1991, page C12; Douglas Jehl, "Acting Justice Dept. Chief Named Attorney General", Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1991, page 1 (Even his critics have praised Barr's performance as the day-to-day manager of the Department...).
  5. Johnston, David, "Attorney General Stepping Down", The New York Times, August 10, 1991.
  6. Ronald Mothers, "U.S. Agents Storm Prison in Alabama, Freeing 9 Hostages", The New York Times, August 31, 1991, page 1; Klaidman, Daniel, "Barr's Star Rises After Hostage Rescue" Legal Times, September 9, 1991, page 6.
  7. Barrett, Paul, "Bush Picks Barr for Attorney General Post", The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 1991, page A25.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Ostrow, Ronald J. (November 14, 1991). "Barr Opposed to Roe vs. Wade Decision : Justice Dept.: The attorney general-designate tells Senate panel right to privacy does not extend to obtaining an abortion". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 8, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Ostrow, Ronald J. "Judiciary Panel Approves Barr for Attorney General". LA Times. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Ostrow, Ronald J. "Judiciary Panel Approves Barr for Attorney General". LA Times. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help); |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 Johnston, David, "New Attorney General Shifts Department's Focus", The New York Times, March 3, 1992, page A17; LaFraniere, Sharon, "Barr Takes Center Stage at Justice Department With New Script", The Washington Post, March 5, 1992, A19.
  12. Ostrow, Ron, "Barr: Conservative With 'Political Savvy' Is on Fast Track", Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1991, page A20; Barrett, Paul, "At Justice Department, New No. 2 Man Brings Humor, Humility to Difficult Job", The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 1990.
  13. Landler, Mark, "The Lawyer Leading the Charge Against the FCC's Regulations", The New York Times, 1/20/97, page D1; Barrett, Paul, "GTE Lawyer Shapes Strategy for Telecommunications", The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 1996.
  14. Green, Frank, "Parole, Sentencing Reform Plan Clears First Hurdle", Richmond Times Dispatch, August 1994, page A1, A10.
  15. "Board of Visitors". Special Collections Research Center Wiki. College of William & Mary. 3 August 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Ostrow, Ron, "Barr: Conservative With 'Political Savvy' Is on Fast Track", Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1991, page A18.
Legal offices
Preceded by
Donald B. Ayer
U.S. Deputy Attorney General
Served under: George H.W. Bush

Succeeded by
George J. Terwilliger III
Preceded by
Dick Thornburgh
U.S. Attorney General
Served under: George H.W. Bush

Succeeded by
Janet Reno