Thank you, Vice Dean [Jancy ] Hoeffel. I appreciate your kind words and – because we’ve known each other for such a long time – I’m especially grateful that you left out some stories. I also want to thank Dean [David] Meyer for inviting and welcoming me – as well as my daughter, Maya – to this beautiful campus. This is a truly special place. And I’m proud that, this fall, Maya will become a member of this University’s freshman class. So, I want all of you – especially my daughter – to know that I plan to become a familiar presence here at Tulane.
I’m looking forward to this – and to having yet another good reason to visit New Orleans. I have always loved this city, and I continue to be inspired by its resilience. I’m also extremely proud of the progress that’s been made here in recent years, as a result of partnerships that have been forged and reinforced between our nation’s Department of Justice and your academic, civic, and government institutions. And I continue to be grateful for the leadership of public servants like Louisiana’s Attorney General, Buddy Caldwell; and United States Attorneys Jim Letten, Stephanie Finley, and Donald Cazayoux. Thank you all for being with us, and being part of this discussion.
Since I was sworn in as Attorney General – exactly three years ago today – it has been a privilege to work with these leaders, and to be part of the efforts that have taking hold – in so many communities and parishes and, in a very real way, on this law school’s campus – to rebuild and revitalize New Orleans; to seek healing and achieve justice; and to restore what my friend, Mayor Landrieu, has called “the sacred covenant” between citizens and their government.
Today, by participating in this lecture series, we have a unique and important opportunity to think about this “sacred covenant,” to consider our responsibilities in upholding it, and – of course – to recommit ourselves to the work that distinguished the lives and legacies of George Dreyfous and Mathilde Schwab Dreyfous. As we reflect on this extraordinary couple, it is a special honor to be joined by so many of their family members.
Although a century has passed since George Dreyfous was a Tulane University student, the examples that he and his wife left to us still serve as reminders that the actions of a single person can make a difference in countless lives, and help to advance our nation’s most important, and enduring, struggle: the struggle for equal justice, equal opportunity, and equal rights.
During his service in the United States Army in World War I – and in the Navy during World War II – George Dreyfous fought for peace and freedom around the world. Here in his hometown, after earning a law degree from Harvard, he fought to improve America’s legal system – by helping to found and lead the Louisiana League for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights and the Louisiana Civil Liberties Union; by becoming an outspoken – and tireless – advocate for the integration of schools and public spaces; and for the expansion of civil rights to all people, regardless of race. In this work, he was joined by an essential partner – his wife Mathilde, whose extensive community service included helping to lead this state’s League of Women Voters; becoming the first Louisianan to serve on the National Board of the League; and working with her husband and others to protect civil liberties and, specifically, to combat segregation here in this state.
In working to safeguard and expand civil rights, this remarkable couple faced difficulty, controversy, and even hostility. From neighbors in their own community, they often lacked support. And from their government, they felt – and lamented – the absence of a “sacred covenant.”
In learning about George Dreyfous, I was particularly – and personally – struck by his view of our nation’s Department of Justice. In a letter he wrote in 1955, to his stepson Tom Schwab, his feelings – and frustrations – are clear.
“I prefer to capitalize Justice Department,” George Dreyfous explained in that letter, “because it” – and by it he meant the word Justice – “is a title, not a description.”
For the better part of the 20th century, he – like so many of his fellow Americans, and especially his neighbors here in New Orleans – had good reason to believe that our nation’s Justice Department was – in some ways – not a force for progress, but an enforcer of the status quo; and that our legal system stood, not always as a foundation for justice, but – in some respects – as a barrier to it.
That’s why, until his final days, George Dreyfous called for, and worked toward, change. Both he and Mathilde wanted to help bring about reforms in our legal system. And they hoped to see the bold leadership that he believed was necessary to alter the course of this country.
I understand that, throughout 1960 – the last year of his life – George Dreyfous, like his wife, was an enthusiastic supporter of John F. Kennedy’s Presidential campaign. And I was glad to learn that, in his final weeks, he had the chance to celebrate the inauguration of President Kennedy – and to hear JFK’s famous appeal for every American to “ask what you can do for your country…and what, together, we can do for the freedom of man.”
I wish that George Dreyfous could have seen the transformative changes that would mark the rest of the 1960’s – and would continue in the decades to follow. I wish he could have seen the achievements and legal reforms that Attorney General Robert Kennedy – and so many others – would help to advance; and how longstanding barriers – to educational and employment opportunities, to legal services and protections, and to our public spaces, transportation systems, and voting booths, would be broken down. And though it’s impossible, I also wish I could assure him – just as I want to assure each of you – that, today, in the Department I am so privileged to lead, the word “Justice” is not merely a part of our title. It is the description, and the very definition, of our work. It is the goal we keep before us each and every day. It is the cause that inspired and guides our efforts.
Nowhere is this more evident than in our aggressive enforcement of the civil rights laws and reforms that George and Mathilde Dreyfous once championed. This afternoon, I’d like to discuss a specific aspect of this work – and tell you about our current efforts to uphold what I believe to be the most basic right of American citizenship: the right to vote.
Unfortunately, George Dreyfous did not live to see the day, in 1965, when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. But, long before that milestone, both he and his wife recognized that access to the ballot box – for every American citizen – is the cornerstone, and lifeblood, of our democracy. Despite this fact – and despite our nation’s long tradition of extending voting rights – today, a growing number of Americans are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that – nearly five decades ago – inspired lunch-counter sit-ins, state house marches, ballot drives, and Freedom Rides bound for New Orleans.
As one of the most famous Freedom Riders, Congressman John Lewis, has described it – in a speech on the House floor last summer – the voting rights that he worked throughout his life – and nearly gave his life – to ensure are, “under attack… [by] a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, [and] minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” Not only was he referring to the all-too-common deceptive practices that we’ve been fighting for years. He was echoing more recent concerns about some of the state-level voting law changes we saw in last year’s legislative season.
On Monday of this week, Congressman Lewis visited the Justice Department – and we had the chance to discuss our latest efforts to enforce voting protections. I want to tell you what I said to him – and have stated repeatedly: that at the Department of Justice, our commitment to expanding access to voting opportunities, and to preventing discrimination in our election systems, has never been stronger.
We are dedicated to aggressively enforcing the Voting Rights Act – and, I want to note, to fulfilling our obligations under Section 2 and Section 5 of this critical law. As many of you know – and as the law students here are learning – Section 2 prohibits racially discriminatory practices that amount to either vote denial or vote dilution. And, under this provision, we have opened a record number of new investigations – more than 100 in the last fiscal year. We’ve also had success in encouraging voluntary improvements and compliance.
At the same time, Section 5 – which requires preclearance of proposed voting changes in parts or all of sixteen states, including Louisiana – continues to be a critical tool in the protection of voting rights. In 2006, it was reauthorized with near-unanimous support in Congress, before being signed by President Bush. However, despite the long history of support for Section 5, this keystone of our voting rights laws is now being challenged as unconstitutional by several jurisdictions. Each of these lawsuits claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality; that America in 2012 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965; and that Section 5 is no longer necessary.
I wish this were the case. Unfortunately, in jurisdictions across the country, both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common. And we don’t have to look far to see recent proof.
In fact, just a few months ago, in October, the Justice Department objected to a redistricting plan in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, where the map-drawer began the process by meeting exclusively with white officeholders. The result was a map that diminished the electoral opportunity for African Americans. But I’m pleased to report that – after the Justice Department objected – the Parish enacted a new, non-discriminatory map.
This example is one of many similar instances that illustrate why the Department must – and will – continue to vigorously defend Section 5 against challenges to its constitutionality. As part of our obligations under this provision, we’re now reviewing a number of redistricting plans in covered jurisdictions, as well as other types of changes to our election systems and processes – including changes to the procedures governing third-party voter registration organizations, to early voting procedures, and to photo identification requirements – to ensure that there is no discriminatory purpose or effect. And, as we have proven repeatedly, we will apply Section 5 objectively and even-handedly. If a state passes a new voting law and meets its burden of showing that the law is not discriminatory, we will follow the law and approve the change. And when a jurisdiction fails to meet its burden of proving that a proposed voting change would not have a racially discriminatory effect – we will object.
Furthermore, as we’ve signaled here in Louisiana, we are committed to full enforcement of all provisions of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 – which is commonly known as the “Motor Voter” law. As part of this effort, we have taken important steps to enforce the requirement that voter registration opportunities be made available at all covered government offices – including offices providing public assistance and disability services.
Last year, one of two new lawsuits that the Department filed under Section 7 of this law was brought here in Louisiana. Congress specifically designed this provision – which requires that voter registration opportunities be made available at state agencies providing public assistance or disability services – to increase registration among poor and disabled citizens, who do not have drivers’ licenses and are unlikely to visit a DMV or come into contact with the other places where voter registration services are regularly available.
Our litigation is ongoing in federal court in Baton Rouge. However, in the other Section 7 lawsuit we brought last year – against Rhode Island – we have reached a settlement. Under this agreement, Rhode Island now is offering registration opportunities to all applicants for public assistance and disability services. As a result, more voters were registered in the first full month after our lawsuit than in the entire previous two-year reporting period.
Of course, our work extends beyond litigation. Through a range of efforts – whether they’re aimed at protecting the voting rights of U.S. service member and veterans, individuals with disabilities, language minorities, or other citizens who are legally eligible to cast a ballot but struggling to access voting opportunities – we will continue to work closely with state and local agencies to ensure that the most basic right of American citizenship is upheld.
But the Justice Department can’t do it alone.
For every citizen, protecting the right to vote, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue – but as a moral imperative. And every citizen, in every state, must be part of this work.
You have the ability – and the responsibility – to help ensure that our election systems are free from fraud, discrimination, and partisan influence. And, no matter where you live, you can support – and call for – policies aimed at modernizing our voting systems; at making certain that all eligible citizens have access to complete, accurate, and understandable information about where, when, and how they can cast a ballot; and at preventing and punishing fraudulent voting practices. Let me reiterate that last point. Although we know that in-person voter fraud is uncommon, any instance of it is unacceptable – and will not be tolerated by this Justice Department. As someone who began his career investigating and prosecuting voting-fraud cases, for me, this is a personal priority. But let me be very clear: new state rules requiring photo identification to cast a vote too often appear to make a mockery of the promise of real participation in our electoral system. We will be ever vigilant if these laws disproportionately negatively impact the young, people of color, and seniors because that is not acceptable, not in keeping with who we say we are as a nation. Where this Department of Justice finds these rules to be violative of the federal law we will, as we have, act aggressively and oppose such laws.
I pledge my best efforts in strengthening our elections systems – and in safeguarding voting rights. But I also ask for yours.
None of us can take the right to vote for granted. Today – despite so many decades of struggle, sacrifice, and achievement – we must remain ever vigilant in protecting our most basic and important right. This is our challenge. And this is our time.
So let us act – as the namesakes of this lecture series once did, and as so many other Tulane alums have – with optimism and without delay. Let us seize the opportunities now before us to strengthen our nation’s long tradition of progress. And let us do everything within our power to honor America’s enduring pursuit, and most noble cause: opportunity, liberty, and justice for all.