Thank you, Mari, for those kind words, and for your outstanding leadership as Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Human Resources and Administration. I’d also like to thank Dennis Feldt and his colleagues from the library staff for all they’ve done to bring us together for this important observance. And I’d like to extend a special welcome to Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, of the Civil Rights Division; and Laura Klein, who leads the Federal Government Pro Bono Program.
Thank you for taking the time to be with us this morning, as we gather to celebrate Law Day – and renew our shared commitment to strengthening the Department’s critical work; honoring the values of equality, opportunity, and access for everyone in this country; and helping to realize our nation’s founding promise of equal justice under the law.
For just over half a century – since this tradition was started by President Eisenhower, in 1958 – government leaders, legal professionals, and law students have come together on Law Day each year to reflect upon past achievements, to reaffirm mutual responsibilities, and to rededicate themselves to the fundamental and inclusive ideals that have always driven our collective pursuit of a more perfect Union.
Especially this year, as we commemorate a series of historic milestones – including the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; and the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright – it’s appropriate that we pause to consider, and to celebrate, how far this nation has traveled on the road to equality and opportunity. But it’s also important that we use this moment to remind ourselves, and our fellow citizens, that this journey is far from over. And the road ahead still stretches beyond the horizon.
Although our country, and our society, have in many ways been fundamentally transformed in the century and a half since the Emancipation Proclamation paved the way for the abolition of slavery – we still must confront discrimination and bigotry in our society today. Although our nation has come a long way since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just a short distance from this Great Hall, to share his dream with all the world; and although a direct beneficiary of his righteous efforts now sits in the Oval Office, and another humbly serves as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States – Dr. King’s audacious dream has yet to be fully realized. Although our justice system was strengthened – and the course of legal history forever altered – when the Supreme Court held, in Gideon v. Wainwright, that every defendant charged with a serious crime has the right to an attorney, even if he or she cannot afford one – even today, in 2013, far too many Americans are unable to access the assistance they need, and our indigent defense systems exist in a state of crisis.
This is why, as we assemble this morning to reflect on these achievements and recommit ourselves to this unfinished work; as we strive to address persistent needs and overcome unwarranted disparities – I can’t help but reflect on the words of my predecessor, Robert F. Kennedy, in his first official speech as Attorney General. In May of 1961, at a Law Day celebration hosted by the University of Georgia – which had been integrated just a short time before – he spoke about many of these same challenges, and called a new generation of aspiring lawyers to help ensure equality and justice for all. He asked them to use their skills and talents to strengthen our nation’s legal systems, and to safeguard the most cherished institutions of our democracy. Most importantly, he urged them to seize the moment before them – and to confront any obstacle head-on, recognizing that: “[a]ll of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.”
Despite the remarkable, once-unimaginable progress our nation has seen – and which the Justice Department has helped to bring about – since those words were spoken, they continue to ring true. From terrorist threats to violent crime and financial fraud; from civil rights violations to barriers to reentry; from environmental disasters to tax fraud, threats against law enforcement, and even sequestration – I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone here of the “difficult and perplexing” challenges of our time. I know that, every day, this Department’s employees are asked to contend with some of the most complex issues facing anyone in government. And I’m proud to note that, especially in recent years, you have responded to these challenges not with discouragement or despair – but with resolve, and robust action.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the work of the Civil Rights Division. Over the last four years, the Division has made tremendous progress in enforcing many of the landmark protections secured by the Civil Rights Movement; in combating bias, hate-motivated violence, and human trafficking; and in safeguarding the right of every eligible citizen to cast a ballot. Over the same period, the Department has taken tremendous steps to realize the promise of Gideon – through the excellent work of pro bono attorneys throughout the country and across the federal government. Thanks to the leadership of the Access to Justice Initiative – which I launched in 2010 – we’ve also made great strides in building engagement with a variety of partners to bolster indigent defense systems and help ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable, and accessible for everyone in this country.
Fortunately, all of this is only the beginning. Across every office and component, each of our employees has helped to reinvigorate sweeping efforts to enforce the essential protections of our legal system for all sectors of society. You’ve taken extraordinary steps to prevent and combat terrorism and violent crime. In the wake of last month’s senseless terrorist attack in Boston, some of you are working tirelessly to hold accountable those who were responsible for this cowardly act – while others are bringing help and healing to the victims and their families.
Beyond this work, many of you are striving to advance our broader national security efforts – and to identify, investigate, and disrupt potential plots by foreign terrorist organizations as well as homegrown extremists. You’re leading the fight against drug trafficking, international criminal networks, gangs, and cyber criminals. You’re working to protect the American people, including our brave men and women in law enforcement, from an evolving range of threats, and to make more efficient use of precious resources. You’re exploring strategies for improving America’s criminal justice system, including addressing unwarranted sentencing disparities. Finally, you’re working with our counterparts in Congress and throughout the Administration to help secure essential legislative changes – including comprehensive immigration reform, so that 11 million people who are here in an undocumented status can step out of the shadows; and commonsense measures to prevent and reduce gun violence.
Now, despite my frustration at recent setbacks – such as the filibuster in the U.S. Senate that, last month, prevented a bipartisan majority from passing a straightforward proposal to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people – I know you share my determination to stand with the families of Newtown, Connecticut, and with all whose lives and futures are shattered by gun violence every day in our cities’ streets. I’m confident that, irrespective of politics or ideology – guided the facts, the law, and the imperative to do that which is right – in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community, you will continue to pursue these and other efforts to make this country not only safer – but stronger. I’m certain that the American people can count on you to keep building on this Department’s remarkable record of achievement. But I also recognize that – although we can take pride in the meaningful, measurable progress you’ve made possible – we cannot yet be satisfied. And none of us can afford to become complacent.
After all, as Attorney General Kennedy reminded us in that first speech, over half a century ago: “. . . all the high rhetoric on Law Day about the noble mansions of the law, all the high sounding speeches about liberty and justice are meaningless unless people such as you and I breathe force and meaning into it.”
This, then, is the opportunity now before us: to translate today’s observance into principled action. This is our chance – this is our moment – to reach for the next milestone, and carry this progress just a little further down the road. And this is our time – to fulfill the mission, and hold true to the values, that have always defined this Department – not by winning cases or securing convictions, but by seeing that justice is done.
As I look around this crowd – of close friends and strong allies – I can’t help but feel confident in our ability to do just that. I’m optimistic about all that we’ll be able to achieve – so long as we continue to work together. I’m proud to count you as colleagues in this ongoing journey. And I look forward to all that we must – and surely will – accomplish together in the critical days ahead.
At this time, it’s my privilege to introduce another senior Department leader whose efforts are instrumental in advancing this work. Please join me in welcoming Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Roy Austin.