Thank you, Debby, and thank you for your leadership of the Access to Justice Initiative and for being the driving force behind today’s celebration.
I’m privileged this afternoon to have three distinct honors. The first is to welcome and thank all of you for joining us here today in the Justice Department’s Great Hall. This Hall symbolizes the fusion of two core principles here at the Department: Our respect for the majesty of the law, represented by the figure on your right; and our conviction that law’s proper role is in the service of justice, portrayed by the figure on your left. And like the Gideon case itself, these statues remind us that justice is as much a journey as it is a destination -- as much a process as it is an outcome -- and that we must give equal attention to both. Because in the half-century since the High Court decided Gideon we’ve made much progress along that journey, though we have many miles yet to travel.
My second honor is to share with you the thoughts of someone who couldn’t join us today but who shares our sentiments. He writes:
“I send greetings to all those attending the Department of Justice’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright.
“In 1961, an impoverished man, denied counsel, defended himself before the law and set the stage for what would lead to a landmark Supreme Court decision that moved our Nation closer to realizing its founding principles of equality and justice for all.
“The unanimous 1963 decision in Gideon declared a fair trial cannot be granted without legal representation of the accused in criminal proceedings. For 50 years, we have made remarkable progress in protecting the right to counsel for anyone charged with a crime — regardless of class or status. As we mark this important milestone, let us recommit to keeping the promise of Gideon alive for years to come.
“On this special occasion, I wish you all the best for an enjoyable event.
“[signed] Barack Obama”
And that brings me to the third honor: to introduce the Attorney General. Long before he led this Department where he spent most of his professional life, Eric Holder understood that as central as protecting the safety and security of the American people is to our mission here at the Justice Department, so too is safeguarding indigent defense and promoting access to justice. He understands that Gideon is both a legacy and an invitation.
That’s why early in his tenure, he launched an Access to Justice Initiative, because he knows that the scales of justice balance only when legal services are available, affordable, and accessible to everyone in the United States regardless of wealth or status.
That’s why last September, he made an historic appearance before the United Nations General Assembly, pledging that the United States would not shrink from its responsibility to “improve access to justice for those who cannot afford representation.”
And it’s why last week, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when talking about the thousands of unaccompanied children who appear before immigration judges every year, by themselves, without any lawyer, he said this: “It is inexcusable that young kids — . . . 6- , 7-year-olds, 14-year-olds — have immigration decisions made on their behalf . . . and they’re not represented by counsel. That is,” he said, “simply not who we are as a Nation.”
And so, ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to introduce the Attorney General of the United States: Eric Holder.