University of Pittsburgh

David J. Hickton

David J. Hickton

David Hickton becomes the sixth Pitt Law alumnus to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Read full story here.

The first book that David J. Hickton remembers reading was Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning study of eight heroic U.S. senators.

It was a gift from his politically active, community-involved parents—one of a number of books about worthy public servants they gave David in the hope of inspiring him to pursue public service himself when he grew up.

Hickton fulfilled that hope in August 2010, when the Pitt Law grad was confirmed as the 57th United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, the highest-ranking federal law enforcement officer in 25 counties from Erie to Johnstown.

“I’m looking forward to working with people who have dedicated their lives to helping people and making their lives better,” the 54-year-old Hickton told reporters at his swearing-in.

Hickton was recommended to President Barack Obama as a U.S. Attorney candidate late in 2009 by Pennsylvania Senators Arlen Specter and Bob Casey. Following background checks by White House staff, Obama nominated Hickton in May 2010 for a four-year term to succeed Pitt Law grad Mary Beth Buchanan, who had resigned to pursue a Congressional seat. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved Hickton’s nomination on Aug. 5, 2010.

He is the sixth Pitt Law alumnus to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Western District. Others have included former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, ’57 (who held the post from 1969 to 1975); Blair A. Griffith, ’54 (1975-78); Robert S. Cindrich, ’68 (1978-81); Frederick W. Thieman, ’77 (1993-97); and Buchanan, ‘87 (2001-09).

A founder of the Pittsburgh law firm Burns, White & Hickton (now Burns White LLC), Hickton specialized at that firm in civil and commercial litigation. From 1983 to 1987, he was an associate attorney for Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote.

As a U.S. Attorney, Hickton heads an office that prosecutes federal crimes, oversees civil rights investigations, and prosecutes and defends the United States in cases in which it is named as a party.

He is a busy man. But not too busy to e-mail replies to questions for the Pitt Law Web site.

How has your Pitt Law education contributed to your professional and personal lives?

HICKTON: Greatly. I was fortunate to be in an outstanding class (’81), surrounded by great students in the class before us and behind us. It was an exciting time, when the Pitt law school was transitioning to national prominence.

Why did you choose a career in law?

My father was a lawyer, and he attended law school at night when I was growing up. [Hickton’s father, Jack, served as Allegheny County district attorney from 1974 to 1976]. As his oldest son I was included in many of his professional and social activities around his career in the law, and I was drawn to the interesting nature of the work, the principle and purpose in a career in the law, and the wide variety of personalities surrounding the practice of law.

How did you end up attending Pitt’s law school? 

Near the conclusion of my undergraduate studies at Penn State, I was appointed to the Penn State Board of Trustees.  It was a fantastic opportunity and a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience, especially for a 22 year old.  I felt that studying at a Pennsylvania state-related school was most appropriate if I was going to remain a trustee.

At that time, Penn State did not have a law school, and only the University of Pittsburgh and Temple did, among the state-related universities. Since I was from Pittsburgh and intended to practice there, it made sense, and Pitt Law had a wonderful facility and growing reputation, so really the decision was obvious.

Can you recall any Pitt classroom experiences that convinced you to pursue a legal career, and that law can be a noble profession?

The most distinguishing feature of my law school experience was the appreciation that we were all learning together. Even though there was a concern for grades and it was competitive, to a person we were all uplifted by feeling that we had a collective responsibility to ourselves, our class, the school, and the profession.

During your years at Pitt Law, you were a member of the school’s championship national moot court team under the guidance of then-Dean W. Edward Sell. What was your role?

I was one of the four members of the team that also included Beth Baldwin, Russ Warner, and Mark Nadeau.  Both Pitt teams [that year] advanced to the finals of the Third Circuit competition in Philadelphia, and then Beth and I went on to the national championship in San Francisco.

What did Sell influence you as a teacher, a coach?  What other Pitt law professors influenced you?

Ed Sell taught me that a true professional is measured by the consistent excellence of his work.  I was also greatly influenced by Ed Symons, [now-Pitt Chancellor] Mark Nordenberg, and Carl Cooper.  I also remember the late Bill Shultz and Herb Sherman very fondly.

As a Pitt law student, you interned at Neighborhood Legal Services Association in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. What did you learn from that experience?

I learned that legal problems are real problems for real people. I was able to make a positive contribution in helping people deal with the necessities of a roof over their head and money to pay for food, and I never forgot the lessons I learned there.

When you enrolled at Pitt Law, did you ever envision yourself one day becoming a U.S. Attorney?

I did not dare to believe anything that specific, but even then I thought the United States Attorney’s Office was a very important position, largely because of the high profile it achieved during the service of fellow Pitt alumnus Dick Thornburgh.

I understand you met your wife, Dawne Sepanski Hickton (’83), while you two were attending Pitt Law. How did you get to know each other?

The minute she saw me, she found me irresistible.  No, seriously, Dawne was being considered for the research assistant position under Dean John Murray and was to replace my friend and classmate Bill Downey.  Bill invited her to his wedding and, with a little encouragement from me, suggested that I be her escort.

Up to now, your career has focused on civil, commercial, and antitrust litigation. What have you found satisfying about these areas of the law?

I find myself driven and motivated best when the problems presented are complicated and require insight and effort to find solutions. I have been lucky to have had excellent opportunities and interesting work throughout my career.

Since 1998, you’ve been an adjunct professor at Duquesne University’s law school, teaching antitrust law. What have you gained from teaching?

I have enjoyed teaching immensely.  I love the spontaneous classroom discussion and the look in students’ eyes when they uncover a new layer or depth of understanding. Regrettably, I must suspend my teaching while serving as United States Attorney, but I hope to return to it someday.

Have you charted a career path? If so, what is your ultimate ambition?

I have no career path or ultimate ambition. I am truly living the dream, with what I and many other people consider to be the best job in law.  I hope when I’m done it will be said that I made a positive contribution to people’s lives and to our community.

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