Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs Wiley A. Branton Awards Luncheon
United States
~
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

It is a pleasure for me to be here this afternoon, among so many friends and familiar faces. I am honored to join with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee in paying well-earned tribute to some of this area’s most dedicated lawyers and public servants – men and women who have given so much to the cause of equal rights for all Americans.

The men and women we honor today have made extraordinary contributions – not just to their own communities, but to the cause of justice. Their service sets an example of civic leadership to which all of us should aspire, and I thank them for their efforts to build a more inclusive America. I would also like to thank the Lawyers’ Committee for its continuing work to address the issues of discrimination and poverty that are prevalent in too many of our nation’s most vulnerable communities.

Over the years, the Justice Department has had occasion to work with the Lawyers’ Committee on these issues. I look forward to continuing that history of collaboration during my tenure as Attorney General. In many ways, the Lawyers’ Committee and the Department of Justice have parallel missions. Almost all of the Committees’ project areas have an analog in the Department of Justice, many in the Civil Rights Division – equal employment, fair housing, and disability rights, to name just a few. So I don’t need to tell you how vital it is for the Civil Rights Division to be well staffed and well funded – ready to vigorously enforce our nation’s civil rights and anti-discrimination laws.

One of my highest priorities upon returning to the Justice Department has been to ensure that the Civil Rights Division continues its critical role of ensuring that our nation lives up to the ideal of Equal Protection enshrined so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence and the Fourteenth Amendment. Over the last four months, with help from Congress and the White House, we have provided the Civil Rights Division with the attention, the resources, and the leadership support that its dedicated professionals deserve.

Today, I am proud to say that the "crown jewel" of the Justice Department is on its way to regaining its luster. And I can report that the Civil Rights Division has made important progress on several fronts since President Obama took office in January. The Civil Rights Division has reinvigorated its amicus practice, filing nine amicus briefs and seeking leave to file two more. The Division has continued its work enforcing our nation’s fair housing laws, filing 16 cases – including 7 pattern and practice cases – and obtaining 8 consent decrees. In fact, in recent months, the Civil Rights Division has won or settled enforcement actions in virtually every substantive area of civil rights law.

These are important steps. But you and I know that there is much more work to be done. The reconstruction and progress we seek will take years to achieve, not weeks or months. And experience has taught us that the road to equality is long and sometimes treacherous, marked by detours and occasionally by setbacks.

As you know, the Supreme Court is currently considering a case that challenges the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. No matter how the Court resolves this issue, I pledge that the Justice Department will continue working to enforce our nation’s voting rights laws. And we will fight efforts to discriminate in the voting booth just as earnestly as we fight efforts to discriminate in the job or housing markets. You have my word, my friends. Our commitment to Equal Protection – and to full participation in our nation’s elections – will not waiver. Never.

And yet, even as the Department of Justice fulfills its traditional enforcement responsibilities, it must respond to new challenges and resurgent threats. Over the last several weeks, we have witnessed brazen acts of violence, committed in places that many would have considered unthinkable – a sacred memorial in the nation’s capital, a recruiting station for the nation’s armed forces, and a church in the nation’s heartland. The violence in Washington, Little Rock, and Wichita reminds us of the potential threat posed by violent extremists and the tragedy that ensues when reasoned discourse is replaced by armed confrontation.

As the President noted during his recent address at Notre Dame, few topics provoke more intense or more personal disagreement than our nation’s debate about abortion. There are strong views on both sides. And the constitution guarantees each of us the right to express those views, regardless of viewpoint or political affiliation. Indeed, it is only through the frank and civil exchange of strongly-held views that people with different opinions can achieve the common ground that President Obama spoke of last month.

But neither our respect for the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, nor our earnest hope for common ground, can justify the violence we saw in Kansas. We will not tolerate murder, or the threat of violence, masquerading as political activism. So let me be clear, the Justice Department will use every tool at its disposal to protect the rights ensured under our constitution. And we will do all that we can to deter violence against reproductive health care providers and to prosecute those who commit such violence to the fullest extent of the law.

Likewise, the Justice Department will do all that it can to bring the perpetrators of bias-motivated crimes to justice. That includes working with Congress to strengthen existing federal hate crimes laws. The House of Representatives has already passed legislation that would accomplish this goal and the Department of Justice is working with the Senate as it begins consideration of a similar hate crimes statute.

I testified in support of stronger federal hate crimes legislation when I was Deputy Attorney General, almost ten years ago. My friends, that is far too long to wait. Too long to wait for the authority to prosecute offenses motivated by a person’s gender, disability or sexual orientation. Too long to wait for the tools necessary to staunch the rising tide of bias-motivated violence directed at the Latino community. Put simply, too long to wait for justice.

The time has come for Congress to finish its work on this critically important legislation and we look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle to achieve that goal.

The violence we have seen during the last month may seem daunting to some. But I view these tragedies as a call to action. More than forty years ago, in the wake of devastating civil unrest in many of our nation’s largest cities, a group of lawyers and civic activists banded together to form the Lawyers’ Committee, convinced that they could leave a lasting and productive legacy for their community – convinced that they could help to build an America in which violence and injustice of the kind they had witnessed was a thing of the past. Against all odds, they succeeded. And so shall we. Let us commit ourselves – regardless of party affiliation or political viewpoint – to the difficult work ahead: building an America in which the kind of violence we have seen these last few weeks is but a distant memory. And building an America in which all of our Nation’s citizens, in equal measure, enjoy the fruits of our founding documents.

Thank you.