PREPARED REMARKS OF
ATTORNEY GENERAL ALBERTO R. GONZALES
AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION
HOUSE OF DELEGATES
MONDAY, AUGUST 8, 2005 - 11:15 AM
Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for allowing me a few minutes in your busy schedule. I appreciate all of the important work the ABA does for the legal profession - and for our Nation. We may not always agree on issues but this Administration and ABA share a common commitment to the rule of law.
Your contributions to a well qualified judiciary - and especially as we work to confirm a new Associate Justice of the Supreme Court - has traditional importance in the process of placing qualified jurists on the federal bench. On behalf of the President, thank you for your continued interest and contributions in this effort. As many of you know, Judge Roberts was unanimously rated well qualified by the ABA to serve on the DC Circuit. The President believes that because of Judge Roberts’ strong record of integrity, professional competence, and judicial temperament, he is superbly qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. I look forward to a good and fair examination of Judge Robert’s qualifications, and his ultimate confirmation to the Court.
The Supreme Court is a great and enduring symbol of the rule of law in our Nation. It’s that defining characteristic of America - rule of law - not religion, race, or ethnicity - that binds people and generations to our founding principles of liberty and justice for all.
As an organization, the ABA has been advocating for the rule of law for more than one hundred twenty-five years. Throughout your history, you have seen firsthand the importance that law and our courts play in shaping our Nation’s history and upholding our highest ideals.
The story of America is dotted with crises and challenges that tested the mettle of our Nation: the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Cold War. Each time the United States has been presented with a challenge, we’ve responded with a fortitude that has become our hallmark for nearly two hundred thirty years.
From the very start, the United States was a Nation built upon a collective response to adversity and oppression. We faced down tyranny, sacrificed the blood of patriots in revolution, and emerged from the struggle with the greatest legal document the world has known - the U.S. Constitution.
This pattern has repeated itself in our history. Great crises have been met with debate, dialogue, and legal resolution. In the process, the rule of law has been further strengthened as the backbone of our democratic system and a means to peace, prosperity, and opportunity.
This cycle of public policy and legislative solutions to fundamental challenges continues today. Three fairly obvious examples come to mind from my first six months as Attorney General - and I would like to share some thoughts about those with you today.
The Voting Rights Act. The Federal Sentencing Reform Act. The PATRIOT Act. Each represents a successful bipartisan effort to address significant problems or challenges in our society. Each has done an admirable job - standing the test of years and, in some cases, decades. And the fundamental goals of each requires renewed attention today in order to maintain these successes.
At the Justice Department, we are committed to preserving the ideals and values of each of these historic pieces of legislation.
On Saturday, our Nation celebrated the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Forty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed that important bill into law. Earlier last week, I had the chance to travel home to Texas and mark this watershed event in the civil rights history of our Nation.
But as we celebrate this achievement, it is important to remember that it wasn’t always so in our Nation’s history. That is why we strive today to ensure that every single American has a voice in our democracy.
As recently as the 1960’s, many communities were systematically denied the opportunity to vote. The inalienable rights that were promised to all Americans had slipped the grasp of many of the poor and weak in our society.
Consequently, these citizens wielded no power, shared no influence, and had no voice in their government. It was a government of some people, by some people, and for some people.
They were denied the right to vote - denied the privilege of participating - by people who were unafraid of the consequences. There were no tools available to defend these rights against organized racism.
Many of us remember the chilling scene atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama back in March of 1965.
A group marching toward Montgomery - to highlight the injustice of the disenfranchised - only got a few blocks outside of town. On that bridge, a peaceful day turned into Bloody Sunday as marchers were met by police officers and deputized thugs armed with billy clubs and tear gas.
They were stopped. But they could not be silenced.
They spoke loudly for their rights, wielded the authority of their righteous cause, and thereby influenced our government to change. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act just five months after six hundred determined Americans faced down a history of systematic disenfranchisement outside of Selma.
The Voting Rights Act gave the federal government tools to defend the promises made in the Fifteenth Amendment. Every citizen would not only have the right to vote…but that vote would be protected with the full power of the federal government.
Today, the power to vote is one of the greatest opportunities we share as Americans. On Election Day, we all have an equal chance - the same voice - to exert a measure of influence over the events and decisions that shape our lives and our Nation.
That’s why I was proud to celebrate the passage of the law that so effectively codified these principles. And I am proud to serve in an Administration that is deeply committed to the basic ideals of this legislation.
The Voting Rights Act has been enormously successful, but our work is never complete. President Bush wants to ensure that every qualified person in every community of America has an equal chance to not only vote - but also have that vote count.
For this reason, this Administration looks forward to working with Congress on the reauthorization of this important legislation.
As we work towards reauthorization, the men and women at the Justice Department have an ongoing responsibility to ensure that every American citizen’s voice is heard and their votes counted.
That is the work of the Voting Section of our Civil Rights Division and the Public Integrity Section of our Criminal Division. The President has directed the full power and might of the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act and to preserve the integrity of our voting process.
In the post-9/11 world, we have an even greater appreciation for our precious American rights and we recognize exactly what makes our Nation so special. Just as we hugged our families a little harder on that terrible day four years ago, we must cling tighter to the valuable freedoms our enemies hate so much. We cannot grow complacent in the safeguarding of those inalienable rights on which our Nation was founded.
Still today, the Voting Rights Act provides the same hope and opportunity this Nation has promised to generations of Americans. As our pursuit of voting rights has evolved, so too has our commitment to the founding values of our country. And it will continue as we work with Congress on the reauthorization of this historic law.
The Voting Rights Act was passed on the heels of specific acts of violence - such as those on Bloody Sunday - that awakened the country to the need for further protection of our cherished rights and liberties.
The federal sentencing guidelines on the other hand were the result of alarmingly high crime rates across the entire country in the 1960s and 1970s - alerting lawmakers to a crisis in America’s streets and cities.
During a period of time when serious violent crimes more than tripled, some Americans lost faith in our ability to appropriately sentence offenders and keep them from harming others again. Our system of sentencing was unfair and it was broken.
So in 1984, lawmakers from across the political spectrum passed the Sentencing Reform Act with two broad goals in mind.
The first was to increase the safety of law-abiding Americans by restoring in sentencing an emphasis on punishment, incapacitation, and deterrence.
The second was to ensure fairness in sentencing. The statute’s guiding principle was consistency - defendants who had committed equally serious crimes and had similar criminal backgrounds should receive similar sentences.
In the 17-plus years that they have been in existence, federal sentencing guidelines have achieved the ambitious goals of public safety and fairness set out by Congress.
The United States is today experiencing crime rates that are the lowest in a generation. Compared to the years immediately before the Sentencing Act was passed, we’ve prevented thirty-four million additional violent crimes over the last ten years.
Of course, no single law or policy is by itself responsible for today’s low levels of violent crime. But mandatory federal sentencing guidelines have helped drive down crime.
Multiple, independent studies of our criminal justice system confirm what our common sense tells us: increased incarceration means reduced crime. Federal and state sentencing reform has helped put the most violent, repeat offenders behind bars, and kept them there for sentences appropriate to their crimes.
The guidelines have evolved over time to adapt to changing circumstances and a better understanding of societal problems and the criminal justice system. Judges, legislators, the Sentencing Commission, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and others have worked hard to develop a system of sentencing guidelines that has protected Americans and improved American justice.
As you know, however, this past January, the Supreme Court ruled in Booker that federal sentencing guidelines are advisory only and are no longer binding on federal judges.
As a former judge, I know well the difficulties of certain issues such as sentencing, and I admire the men and women on our federal bench. But I fear it is inevitable over time that, with so many different individual judges involved, exercising their own individual discretion, in so many different jurisdictions, even greater disparities among sentences will occur under a system of advisory guidelines.
I am concerned that under such a wholly voluntary system we will not be able to sustain the progress we’ve made and victims may be victimized once again by a system that is intended to protect them.
Since the Booker decision, numerous legislative proposals have been suggested in response and they should all be studied and discussed. I continue to listen and keep an open mind, and one proposal that I have already indicated appears to preserve the protections and principles of the Sentencing Reform Act, and thus deserving of serious consideration, is the construction of a minimum guideline system.
The advantages of a minimum guideline system are many. It would preserve the traditional division of responsibility between judges and juries in criminal cases and retain the important function of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in providing guidelines to the courts regarding sentencing. It would also allow judges some flexibility for extraordinary cases. And a minimum guideline system would be fully consistent with the Sixth Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court.
As lawyers we all have a responsibility to maintain the progress we began with the Federal Sentencing Reform Act - keeping violent crime to its lowest level in three decades - and I look forward to working with Congress, the Judiciary, the Sentencing Commission, and all Americans to design a sentencing system that protects the American people and provides equal justice to defendants.
The Justice Department has been charged with fighting crime for more than one hundred thirty years. And the sentencing guidelines were instrumental in our ability to discharge that duty over the past two decades.
But as you all know, the mission of the Department has evolved to include the fight against terrorism - and new tools were needed to protect the American people from this new threat.
The PATRIOT Act is another law that effectively addresses the signal challenge of this era - fighting terrorism. Much like the Voting Rights Act and Federal Sentencing Reform Act, the PATRIOT Act is a measured - but vitally necessary - response to the central challenge of our day.
Nearly four years ago, we all experienced an unimaginable horror. If you’re anything like me, the memories of September 11th are brought to the fore by images from the London bombings and other terrorist events around the globe.
The roll call of terrorist activities since 9/11 is long: London, Madrid, Baghdad, Riyadh, Jerusalem, Bali, and others. The pictures of bloodied faces and frantic victims still sear and scar the hearts of freedom loving people around the world.
But the new realities of terrorism arrived on our shores in the most spectacular and shocking fashion. Ripped from the quiet following victory in the Cold War, Americans woke up to the threat of violent terrorism in our streets and cities.
Much as we looked on in horror at the brutality of Bloody Sunday and the overt violence in America’s inner cities, the images of burning buildings, ashen sidewalks, and tearful family members transfixed a grieving public.
In the time it took two symbols of American opportunity to crash to the ground, a new crisis engulfed a sorrowed - but steely - Nation.
As expected, America responded with grace. Stores sold out of American flags. Thousands rushed to Ground Zero and the Pentagon to help emergency workers. Millions grieved together and alone.
And I am sure that you all remember dedicated patriots standing together on the steps of the Capitol Building to sing God Bless America. Those same men and women responded quickly to the new security needs of our country. Congress passed and the President signed the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act just a few weeks after the devastation of 9/11.
I’ve talked often about the reauthorization of this important law enforcement tool over the past several months. But the litany of misstatements and half-truths from others have complicated this debate and required a concerted effort to educate the American people - and the bipartisan coalition in Congress who enacted this legislation - about the singular importance of the PATRIOT Act.
You’ve probably heard the arguments on both sides. Let me be straightforward:
Several provisions in the PATRIOT Act were set to expire in the event that the terrorist threat ended or changed, or in the event that the Justice Department did not use these tools in a lawful and responsible manner. As we know from the headlines, the threat has not expired; the Department has acted responsibly. And that ’s why everything that was right about the PATRIOT Act nearly four years ago is still right today. We still need the investigative tools to track potential terrorist activity and share information more quickly. Some have expressed concerns about encroachments on privacy and civil liberties. Count me as someone who is always concerned about such matters. And for that reason, I have welcomed the debate about the PATRIOT Act. But to unilaterally disarm in the face of an ongoing threat by giving up tools that have been effective in protecting America because of hypothetical, theoretical abuses would not be wise.
I am pleased that both the House and the Senate have voted to reauthorize key provisions of the PATRIOT Act and I look forward to them sending a bill to the President’s desk that does not undermine the ability of investigators and prosecutors to disrupt terrorist plots and combat terrorism effectively. I am committed to working with both the House and the Senate as we move toward the ultimate renewal of the Act.
When we do, I believe that we will be able to look back forty years from now and determine that it was another great legislative success that helped America confront the greatest challenge of our era.
Whether it was the civil rights crisis in the sixties, escalating crime rates in the seventies, or terrorism in this new century, different chapters in America’s history have been written with different challenges.
I am proud that we’ve always responded reasonably in a manner befitting the world’s greatest home for freedom and opportunity. It’s the hope incumbent to every American that drives our ability to react to hardship with heart, to confront difficulties with desire.
I am also proud - as I know you are - that lawyers have played a pivotal role in so many of these efforts. It is sometimes fashionable to criticize lawyers - and it is occasionally deserved. But putting aside all humility, and speaking as one lawyer to a group of lawyers, I do not think it can be refuted that lawyers perform a function as important as any in our Nation: giving life to the rule of law in a society founded on that bedrock principle.
Alongside policy makers, opinion leaders, and concerned citizens - in the three cases I’ve cited and many others throughout the history of our Nation - lawyers have helped to bring the measured hand of the law to bear on the challenges we’ve faced.
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson: we are not afraid of any crisis, so long as reason can be left free to combat it.
Reason brought an honorable end to decades of disenfranchisement in the South. Today, the Voting Rights Act continues to protect every American’s access to the ballot box.
Reason ensured that violent criminals received strict and consistent sentences. Today, we are working to continue to reduce crime and renew our commitment to fair sentencing standards.
Reason is helping us fight the war on terror and protect the American people. Today, the PATRIOT Act continues to provide us with the tools necessary to track down and interrupt terrorist plots, while preserving our civil rights and civil liberties.
Reason is what led to the U.S. Constitution and what guides our application of laws to protect the American dream for everyone who seeks its blessings.
We are lucky, indeed, to live in the greatest country in the world. Thank you for doing your part to ensure that we continue to stand guard over the hope and opportunity - even in the face of crisis - that we’ve come to expect in our great land.
May God bless you and your families, may he guide your deliberations and decisions, and may He continue to bless the United States of America.