THURSDAY, APRIL 14, 2005
THURGOOD MARSHALL FEDERAL JUDICIARY BUILDING
Thank you ladies and gentlemen and good morning. The first and often only experience with the judiciary for most Americans is at the trial court level. So, as you know, how you do your job as district court judges will create an impression for those in your communities that may last a lifetime. In a real sense district court judges are the ambassadors for the judicial branch and I am honored to be with you today. As you all will someday come to know, "Judge" can be a tough title to give up. If I am in a room and hear someone say "Judge," I still turn around. If they say "General," I look behind me for someone with stars on his or her shoulders.
Of course, it isn't the title, but rather the work of a judge that makes me remember fondly my days on the bench in Texas. When then-Governor Bush appointed me to serve on the Texas Supreme Court, I felt a great deal of pride and gratitude that he trusted me to uphold the laws of our state. I was humbled to be held accountable, not only to each of the citizens of Texas, but as a steward of the system for future generations as well.
When the President asked me to serve as Attorney General, it was an opportunity to do the same thing for all Americans. However, for the first time, I am not representing one client, or even one state. I am charged with protecting justice for all one country with shared dreams.
And even though I still respond when someone calls me Judge, I am honored to continue to serve a great President - and a great Nation - as the Attorney General.
In each job I've held, I quickly realized that the trust President Bush placed in me was only the beginning. It's the people's trust that matters most. And earning it is one of the great rewards in life.
Thurgood Marshall understood that. In this building, we are in the shadow of both his name and his legacy of earning the peoples' trust. And his words can inform our efforts to do the same. He said: "In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute."
Our system of justice - the greatest in the world - recognizes our collective humanity with blind and equal justice under the law. As protectors of that system, you indeed claim a tribute fitting of the special trust placed in each of you.
We give to your keeping not only our own equality under the law, but that of our children and grandchildren. That's because the wisdom and judgment you provide today will continue to shape our country far into the future.
Because of what is at stake, the power of the judiciary is entrusted to men and women who will set aside their personal views and faithfully interpret the law. On account of that special trust, you enjoy a special distinction in the minds of the American public.
But with the goodwill and trust of the American people come great expectations - and for good reason. Our courts stand as the safeguard of our most precious rights and liberties under the Constitution. It is in your courtrooms that the rule of law is upheld as the sturdy backbone of our society.
Even more so in the last few years - in a new age of terrorism following September 11th and through the ongoing battle to protect America against those who do not share our values - we are constantly reminded of the importance of your work.
I am familiar with the expectations placed on your shoulders - and the burdens attendant to meeting them. My time on the bench was relatively brief, but I learned some lasting lessons. First, the character of the people who sit on the bench is critical. Second, the principles that form the process by which a judge makes a decision is vitally important. And third, it is absolutely necessary that judges be disciplined and courageous enough to make the right decision under the law.
I want you to know that I appreciate the daily - and unique - displays of courage you show in the hundreds of judicial decisions you collectively make each day. As an American citizen, I recognize and respect this service to our Nation. As Attorney General, I will always support you - and the integrity of the process that allows for that courage - in any way I can.
The foundation of that process is called judicial independence - your ability to make decisions free from any undue influence. I believe strongly, as the President does, in an independent judiciary. The President will continue to appoint judges who faithfully interpret the Constitution; and I will continue to support every effort to ensure that judges already in place can make decisions based solely on the law.
The principles of an independent judiciary are woven tightly into the fabric
of our government. Alexander Hamilton championed the concept of life tenure
for judges in Federalist Paper Number 78 because it is the "best expedient
[that] can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright, and impartial
administration of the laws." A lifetime appointment provides you with the
opportunity - and the duty - to continue to make the difficult and courageous
decisions we expect from the judiciary.
Hamilton and others knew that yours would be an arduous task. But they constructed safeguards that are as necessary - and useful - today as they were in the Eighteenth Century. As they intended, judicial independence - including lifetime tenure - continues to be the "citadel of the public justice and the public security."
But the concept of judicial independence has never meant, and should never mean that your decisions should be immune from scrutiny and criticism. Quite the contrary, as Justice Thomas testified earlier this week in front of a House committee, federal judges "have lifetime appointments because [they] are supposed to be criticized."
No one likes to be criticized. I understand that. But enduring criticism is a natural part of a job that declares winners and losers - half the people are almost always disappointed. Whether the disparagement you bear comes from the public, from the local newspaper, from elected leaders in the halls of Congress, from your colleagues in a dissent, or from a court of appeals criticism can be uncomfortable. It's especially hurtful when you've worked hard to put careful thought and consideration into your judgments. But such criticism has long been an element of judicial history. In fact, the appeal process itself is a form of criticism, explicitly recognizing that judges sometimes make mistakes. And the Nation has, at times, attempted to limit or alter the jurisdictions of our courts as a form of protest. As Justice Kennedy noted in the same House committee earlier this week, a dialogue about the role of courts is part of what "makes democracy work." And it's part of the system that makes our form of government - and specifically the independence of our judiciary - the envy of the world.
The Founding Fathers understood that the judicial branch must be insulated from the "ill humors of society" - as they politely put it in Federalist Paper Number 78. Yet, I realize that occasionally those ill humors stretch beyond criticism, beyond that which strikes only at your professional pride. And while independence can equal safety from public outcry, it is imperative that we provide you with the physical security you need to maintain that independence and execute this important job without any deterrent.
The Department of Justice and the Marshals Service will continue to work to ensure that threats to federal judges are quickly assessed and appropriate measures are taken. We will not accept that a judge is intimidated or threatened in any way in discharging his or her obligation to faithfully interpret the law. To that end, I have directed that a review of judicial security measures be undertaken so that the Department, as well as state and local law enforcement, can benefit from a compilation of best practices from across the nation.
I know that it isn't only outside influences that can impact your ability to effectively do your job. Internally, you are dealing with full caseloads - often without a full bench. I have spoken many times on the need to address judicial vacancies.
I have had the privilege of advising the President on the selection of judicial nominees. The selection and appointment of judges is extremely important to the President - for the reasons I mentioned, I believe it is a President's most lasting legacy. And I assure you the President takes the responsibility very seriously. The Administration continues to work expeditiously to identify qualified candidates and send nominations to the Senate.
Still, even if all existing judicial vacancies were filled, America's courts would be in dire need of relief. No one understands this better than you. Your caseloads are heavy and a grateful Nation thanks you - and your colleagues - for your hard work. But we all deserve a judicial system that can handle the weighty demand, without overwhelming your docket.
In the past, the Administration has supported the creation of additional judgeships, which Congress has done through appropriations bills and authorizing legislation. Yet, there has not been a truly comprehensive judgeships bill, one including both circuit and district court judgeships, for more than a decade.
I am convinced that we can - and must - take steps to better facilitate the administration of justice in our courts. There are several proposals that have been introduced over the past few years, including one passed by the House of Representatives last year to address new judgeships. I look forward to working with Congress and the Judiciary to pass legislation that will help ease the burden in our courtrooms.
Another very important area of obvious concern to both you and me is the impact of the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Booker, holding that the federal sentencing guidelines are purely advisory.
In the wake of that decision, the Justice Department is currently in the process of studying proposed legislative alternatives. Attorneys, judges, and academics have outlined several alternatives in Congressional testimony and before the Sentencing Commission. The Department is committed to working with all interested parties to ensure that the resulting sentencing regime embodies the principles of the Sentencing Reform Act, namely fair, tough, consistent, transparent and predictable sentencing.
I realize that in many ways, the policy decision by the Congress reflected in the sentencing guidelines speaks directly to the maintenance of an independent judiciary. Some judges may still resent the fact that Congress is not willing to defer entirely to a judge's discretion and judgment when it comes to sentencing matters.
The sentencing guidelines, however, are not in my judgment an arbitrary infringement on that independence, nor should they be seen that way. They are an attempt to ensure fairness for all defendants, not to suggest a lack of trust in the discretion of the courts. The sentencing guidelines help maintain consistent and predictable sentences, prevent vast disparities, ensure fairness, and strengthen the Department's leverage to negotiate early plea agreements for complete and truthful cooperation. I'm sure you will all agree that we shouldn't take steps that will hamstring our ability to get early pleas that could reduce the burden on your courtrooms.
The policy of the sentencing guidelines is consistent with efforts throughout history to continue to refine the jurisdiction of the federal courts - a role provided to Congress in the Constitution. We are witnessing today an ongoing debate over matters, such as whether courts should decide gay marriage and detainment of enemy combatants. No one is questioning the independence of the judiciary to resolve these issues. Rather, the question is whether courts are the appropriate forum, or should be the sole forum, to deal with these difficult and emotionally charged issues. Perhaps they are best left to be resolved by the Congress and the President, the branches of government accountable to the American people.
In any event, like other challenges, sentencing can only be successfully addressed with the cooperation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. I appreciate your willingness to work together on this important issue. It's one of the many things that, taken together, make the system of justice that we serve - and the Nation we all love - so special. Few have as great a responsibility - or as great an opportunity - to make a lasting impact on both as each of you do.
Thurgood Marshall noted: "A man can make what he wants of himself if he truly believes that he must be ready for hard work and many heartbreaks." I think he actually understated the point. While there will be heartbreaks, though I hope very few, with hard work we can make more than simply what we want of ourselves.
We can make what we want of justice, liberty and freedom in America. We can make a system of laws that tends to each citizen as if he or she were the only one. And we can make a country that is nurturing of all, negligent of none, and one that is just, now and into the future.
We'll do it together.
Thank you again for your service to this great Nation. And thank you again for giving me this opportunity to have this dialogue with you.