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Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams Delivers Remarks at the American Bar Association’s “ABA Day”


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you, Hilarie, for that kind introduction.  I appreciate the invitation to come and speak to you and to be a part of what I know is a busy schedule.  This conference brings together leaders in the legal field, and it is an honor to be with so many fellow attorneys from across the country.  You are here to advocate on behalf of the profession on issues of real importance to your clients and to your communities.  Your commitment to justice is evident not only in the time you are taking away from your busy schedules and the miles that you logged to get here, but also—more importantly—your continued commitment to “Justice for All.” 

It may come as a surprise to you, but our profession has been known to have some jokes made at our expense.  I’ve experienced that personally as the first lawyer in a medical family.  To that audience, it’s not always easy to explain the value you’re adding by responding to interrogatories and document requests.  But recently I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak at another very important event:  Career Day at my daughter’s school.  I was trying to explain what laws are, and many of the children responded by voluntarily reporting their parents’ traffic infractions.  That was a little scary.  But if you have the opportunity to talk to kids about what you do, I highly recommend it.  Because our work—helping people resolve disputes peacefully—is the foundation of the rule of law.  Fundamentally, it’s what separates our country from those far less fortunate.  It is, to quote Adams, what allows us to be “a government of laws, and not of men.”   

Last year I left private practice to join the Department of Justice.  It’s been a privilege and honor to serve the Department, and to come to work every day to think about how we can make our justice system work better for those who need it most.    

On behalf of the Department of Justice, I’d like to share with you some of the Department’s current initiatives and recent successes under the leadership of Attorney General Sessions.  Before I begin, though, I thought it might be helpful to explain the role of the Office of Legal Policy (or OLP) within the Department of Justice.  OLP is often described as the internal policy think tank for the Department.  Unlike most of the other divisions at the Department of Justice that oversee cases or prosecute particular crimes, OLP is tasked with researching and developing policies and strategies to promote the Department’s overarching priorities. 

As Assistant Attorney General for OLP, I serve as a primary policy advisor to the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General.  After years in private practice as a trial and appellate lawyer, my new position is a departure from what I was used to.  But it has been an immense honor to serve, working side-by-side with my colleagues to fulfill the mission of the Department of Justice:  enforcing the law, preventing crime, and ensuring public safety.

From day one, the Attorney General has been clear about his priorities:

  1. Protecting our national security;
  2. Reinvigorating the Department’s commitment to reduce violent crime to make every community safer;
  3. Upholding the rule of law and protecting civil rights;
  4. Committing the Department to enforcing our nation’s drug laws and combatting the opioid crisis—the deadliest drug crisis in American history;
  5. Enforcing a lawful, constitutional, and orderly immigration system that makes us safer and more secure; and
  6. Committing the Department to good government practices that advance justice and freedom.

The Department has had numerous successes in each of these areas, but given our limited time today, I am going to focus specifically on three key efforts:  fighting the deadly opioid epidemic; reversing the rise of violent crime; and upholding the rule of law.

Strategic priorities must be more than platitudes.  Policies are important precisely because of the real impact they have on people’s lives.  The 64,000 people lost to drug overdoses in 2016 are not just a statistic—they are our fellow Americans.  The woman or girl treated like a commodity, literally bought and sold, is not just another human trafficking victim—she is someone’s daughter.  Each day, we honor these individuals—victims of violent crime and the deadly drug epidemic—with our work and our commitment to do all we can to prevent the harms that are done to them. 

As a lawyer at the Justice Department, it is an honor to represent and to advocate for the American people.  However, to make this worthy objective more concrete, I find it helpful to recall individual clients I worked with earlier in my legal career.  Like many of you, I drew great satisfaction from my pro bono legal service.  I handled a variety of matters; one case, however, stands out.  At the time, I was partnered with the Children’s Law Center, a fantastic non-profit in D.C. dedicated to ensuring that children in this city can grow up with a loving family, good health, and a quality education.  For this case, I represented a maternal aunt and licensed foster parent who sought guardianship of her 16-year-old niece and 13-year-old nephew.  The children had been placed in foster care as a result of the birth mother’s substance abuse.  Although their mother had not died, those children had—for all practical purposes—lost their mother to drugs.  They had to grow up quickly and deal with things that children should not have to deal with.  Their story is not unlike those of thousands of other children who are left abandoned by the drug crisis in our country.

I am reminded of those children and that case as my Office, along with others throughout the Department, continues to evaluate and devise a strategic plan to fight the ever-changing opioid epidemic.  In 2016, we lost one American every nine minutes to a drug overdose, and preliminary data from 2017 suggests that number has continued to rise.  Fentanyl and Heroin are pouring into our country at alarming rates.

Our Attorney General is determined to end this upward trend.  This is a winnable fight, and the Department has consistently dedicated new resources as the landscape changes.  In August, General Sessions announced a new data analytics program—the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, specifically focused on opioid-related health care fraud.  As part of this initiative, the Attorney General also sent a dozen experienced prosecutors to opioid “hot-spot” districts, directing these talented individuals to focus on prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud.  Working with DEA, FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services, and—of course—local partners, we are finding and indicting those individuals who are illegally profiting from this horrific drug epidemic, including a staggering 120 defendants who were charged as part of the largest opioid-related takedown in American history.

In January, the Department announced a new resource—the Joint Criminal Opioid Enforcement Team, or J-Code, which brings together DEA, drug trafficking task forces, health care fraud special agents, and other assets—to fight against online drug trafficking.  Just last week, the Department announced the results of the J-Code Team’s first coordinated action—8 arrests and the seizure of weapons, drugs, counterfeit currency, and computer equipment used to sell illicit drugs online.

And in February, the Department launched the Prescription Interdiction and Litigation Task Force, to aggressively deploy and coordinate available criminal and civil law enforcement tools to reverse the tide of opioid overdoses in the United States, with a particular focus on opioid manufacturers and distributors.  These efforts build on numerous successes that we had in 2017, when our prosecutors charged more than 3,000 defendants with opioid-related crimes.  Fentanyl prosecutions in particular tripled during those 12 months.

The fight is serious, but we are making a difference. 

Another serious fight—and a priority for this Attorney General, this Department of Justice, and this Administration—is the battle to reverse the rise of violent crime that has plagued many of our cities.  After 20 years of crime decline in America, the trend reversed dramatically from 2014 to 2016.  Driven especially by crime in certain cities, the violent crime rate nationwide increased nearly 7 percent.  Assault rose nearly 10 percent.  Rape went up by nearly 11 percent.  Murder shot up by more than 20 percent—the largest increase in almost 50 years.  Fortunately, preliminary data for 2017 suggests that these trends have begun to slow, and I hope that is the case. 

Some would have us ignore these figures, arguing that things are not that bad because violent crime overall is lower than it has been in the past.  But I would challenge those critics to make that argument to the crime victims themselves, to parents whose children were shot, and to those who live in the most vulnerable communities.  Law enforcement abdicates its responsibility if we choose to bury our heads in the sand when faced with rising crime rates. 

To combat violent crime, my Office has assisted the Attorney General with the centerpiece of his crime reduction strategy—the reinvigoration of Project Safe Neighborhoods, or PSN.  Research shows that when the Department launched PSN in 2001 and stood behind this approach to crime reduction, PSN successfully reduced violent crime by 4.1% overall, and by as much as 42% in some locations.  Since the Department first implemented PSN, we have learned that focused enforcement efforts yield the greatest reductions in violent crime.  Research and experience have demonstrated that violent crime is often concentrated in very small areas and committed by a small number of offenders.  Advances in technology and data analysis make it easier for us to identify those areas and individuals that merit federal attention.  PSN, therefore, targets resources to the most violent offenders in the most violent locations.  Because violent crime differs by locality, PSN is built on partnerships with all levels of law enforcement and their communities.  The goal of PSN is not to fill up the courts or to fill up the prisons.  Our goal is not to manage crime or merely to punish crime.  Our goal is to reduce crime and make our communities safer. 

Together, we have been pursuing this goal aggressively—and we are seeing results.  Under Attorney General Sessions, we have increased federal gun prosecutions to a 10-year high and violent crime prosecutions to a 25-year high.  Last year, we secured the convictions of nearly 500 human traffickers.  We convicted approximately 1,200 gang members.  And we helped our allies arrest or charge more than 4,000 MS-13 members. 

We’re not done yet.

Finally, as a lawyer it has been my honor to join with the Attorney General in his efforts to uphold the rule of law.  The Attorney General has spoken many times about his duty to ensure that the laws of the United States are enforced and that the Constitutional order is upheld.  Defending the Constitution includes respecting the three co-equal branches of government.  Recently, this balance has been threatened by the overwhelming number of nationwide—or “limitless”—injunctions that have been issued.  Nationwide injunctions trespass one of the most basic limits of judicial power by granting relief to parties outside the case, and outside of the class action framework.  This is a recent—and alarming—phenomenon. 

While we have become accustomed to them, it’s important to remember that nationwide injunctions did not exist before 1963.  Before 1963, no court in this country had issued such a broad injunction, and they were exceedingly rare until President Reagan took office.  Even after that, by Justice Department estimates, courts issued an average of only 1.5 nationwide injunctions per year against the Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, and 2.5 per year against the Obama administration.  In President Trump’s first year in office, however, judges issued a whopping 20 nationwide injunctions—an eightfold increase.  This matches the entire eight-year total of such injunctions issued against President Obama during his two terms.  This enormous increase should draw alarm. 

It should not be a controversial proposition that courts must limit relief to the parties before them.  Every Justice Department—for decades—has recognized it.  Indeed, the Obama Justice Department repeatedly argued that “a trial court abuses its discretion by fashioning an injunction which is overly broad,” that “injunctive relief should be no more burdensome to the defendant than necessary to provide complete relief to the plaintiffs before the court,” and that “[t]his rule applies with special force where . . . there is no class certification.”   As many of you know, several of President Obama’s key policies were enjoined using nationwide injunctions—among them his Labor Department’s overtime pay rule and his Education Department’s transgender bathroom policy.

Why should we care?  For several reasons.  The erosion of our rules and norms by those duty-bound to uphold the law is always a serious concern.  And the rash of limitless injunctions strikes at the heart of our democratic system.  It immediately moots the issue, preventing any other district courts from considering it or providing different reasoned analysis.  It also invites unvarnished “judge-shopping,” undermining faith in our judiciary, and allows unelected judges to second-guess the domestic policy and national security decisions of our elected officials.  That is not a partisan problem; it can be used—and has been used—against Presidents of both parties.  But the dogged determination with which it has been employed against this President has thrown the problem into sharp relief.

As Attorney General Sessions has repeatedly emphasized, this is “a constitutional . . . and a rule of law issue.”  We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will soon rule that judges must limit their injunctions to the parties in the case before them—not the entire nation.

As a Department, we are proud of our accomplishments thus far and we are grateful to our partners for their assistance in these efforts—law enforcement, policymakers, other agencies, private sector organizations, nonprofits, and fellow lawyers like you.

Moving forward, the Department of Justice will continue to thoughtfully consider and promote our priorities.  We will strive every day to promote justice and ensure public safety.  We will remain committed to upholding the rule of law.  And we will always remember our client, the American people, who we have the immense honor of representing, day in and day out.

Thank you.

Updated April 19, 2018