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Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks at the National Association of Women Judges Midyear Meeting and Leadership Conference


United States

Thank you, Judge [Anna] Blackburne-Rigsby, for those kind words; for your leadership from the bench, and as President of the National Association of Women Judges; and for your many years of service to our nation.

It is a pleasure to be with you today.  And it’s an honor to join so many distinguished jurists, dedicated public servants, devoted members of the private bar, hardworking students, and good friends in discussing the challenges we face – and the opportunities now before us – to expand access to justice; to strengthen the rule of law; and to improve America’s legal system across the board – so we can move our nation closer to its founding ideals of equality, opportunity, and justice for all. 

I know these are the values that have guided the National Association of Women Judges since its founding, 35 years ago.  And they’re the defining principles that bring us together for this important annual conference. 

As a powerful voice for women jurists at every level, this Association has built a long and distinguished record of service and independent advocacy – through a variety of innovative programs and initiatives.  By mentoring young women and minority students – including through partnerships with great institutions like the Washington School for Girls, whose talented choir is with us this afternoon – you have worked to encourage, to motivate, and to inspire America’s future leaders.  You’ve stood at the forefront of efforts to increase the diversity of the bench and bar; to develop strong and committed judicial leadership; and to improve the administration of justice for all litigants – and particularly for populations that are too often overlooked and underserved.  And, by educating voters about our judicial system – and training judges and attorneys to better recognize, and combat, the scourge of human trafficking – you’ve shown your steadfast determination to address some of the most urgent challenges we face. 

Especially this month – as we pause to observe Women’s History Month, and celebrate the contributions that so many courageous women have made in defining our country and shaping its future – we must also seize the opportunity to build on the progress they’ve entrusted to us.  We must honor the strength and dedication of trailblazers like Ada Kepley, the first woman to graduate from law school in the United States; Judge Florence Allen, the first woman ever to serve on the federal bench; and Justices Joan Dempsey Klein and Vaino Hassan Spencer – the two visionary leaders who helped found this organization.  And we must resolve to keep marching down the road that still stretches before us. 

After all, just over a century after a lawyer named Inez Milholland led a historic march down Pennsylvania Avenue – leading thousands of women in a dramatic call for the right to vote – our nation has made extraordinary progress in expanding the franchise and broadly affirming the rights of women from every race, religion, creed, sexual orientation, background, ethnicity, and walk of life.  And today, women make up a larger percentage of the American workforce than ever before.  Yet a persistent wage gap continues to prevent many women from earning the pay they deserve.  And in the legal sphere, only about a third of all federal judges are women – and nearly a dozen districts have never had even a single female judge.

Five decades after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this country has taken remarkable steps to confront discrimination and disenfranchisement.  Yet unacceptable disparities, and longstanding divides, continue to stand in the way of equal opportunity and equal justice – particularly in the context of our corrections systems.

And half a century after the Supreme Court declared, in Gideon v. Wainwright, that anyone facing imprisonment has the right to adequate legal representation, public defender systems have been established in some states and expanded in others.  Yet far too many hardworking public defenders struggle under crushing caseloads.  Their work is too often undermined by a lack of resources.  And far too many Americans remain unable to access the assistance, and the quality representation, to which they are constitutionally entitled.

So there’s no denying that this is a time of great challenges – and urgent obstacles that must be overcome.  But thanks to leaders like you, it’s also a time of rising expectations, renewed efforts – and bold action. 

As we speak, many of you are raising awareness about the magnitude of the crisis we face – and rallying your colleagues and counterparts to fight back aggressively.  You’re reminding current and future legal professionals of the sacred obligations that all of us share – as stewards of America’s justice system – to deliver fair outcomes and ensure due process for everyone in this country –no matter who they are, where they’re from, or how much they make.

Today’s Justice Department is committed to doing everything we can to expand access to counsel and narrow the “justice gap.”  Last summer, we took a significant step forward by filing a Statement of Interest in a class action lawsuit – Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon – asserting that the federal government has a strong interest in ensuring that all jurisdictions are fulfilling their obligations under Gideon.  While our filing took no position on the merits of the case, in the event that the court found constitutional violations, we advocated for workload limits for public defense providers to better ensure quality representation for each client – along with the appointment of an independent monitor to ensure compliance. 

In December, in a pivotal decision, the U.S. District Court found that there had, in fact, been a systemic deprivation of the right to counsel – and mandated the appointment of a public defender supervisor to monitor the quality of indigent defense representation.  That supervisor – a former public defender herself – was appointed just last month.

This was a victory in the fight for indigent defense reform.  But – fortunately – it’s only the beginning. 

Over the last four years, the Justice Department has committed more than $24 million in grants, new initiatives, and other forms of direct assistance to support indigent defense throughout the country.  Through our Office of Justice Programs, we’ve funded a range of efforts to educate, train, and equip lawyers to provide quality representation.  And during 2013 alone, OJP awarded nearly $7 million in grants to establish a community of attorneys committed to serious reform.

Of course, deep budget cuts have in recent years constrained the Department’s ability to sustain our support for state and local providers.  And sequestration threatened the federal public defender system, which has consistently served as a model for success.  But I am pleased to report today that the bipartisan funding agreement that President Obama recently signed into law has finally restored the Justice Department’s overall funding to pre-sequestration levels.  And the President’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2015 will help address the need for resources for indigent defense programs throughout America.

I recognize, as you do, that government leaders will never be able to complete this work, or fulfill this commitment, on our own.  That’s why – through the Department’s Access to Justice Initiative, an office I launched four years ago to expand access to counsel and improve justice delivery systems – my colleagues and I are working to engage new partners in this effort.

As we speak, the Initiative is striving to elevate the level of pro bono service among all members of the bar.  They’re working with the ABA to strengthen Access to Justice Commissions across the country – a proven strategy to overcome barriers to civil justice for the tens of millions of Americans who can’t afford legal help.  And the common denominator among the most successful of the approximately 30 states with a Commission is the active engagement of all levels of the judiciary.  So to those of you who are already working with your state Commission, I thank you.  To those on the sidelines, consider stepping up.  And to those in states without a Commission, we and the ABA are here to provide any support you might need.

Moving forward, we will continue to expand upon these and other efforts to build a criminal justice system that’s worthy of America’s highest ideals.  And we must never hesitate to undertake the targeted changes necessary to eradicate unwarranted disparities; to enable those who have paid their debts to society to become productive citizens; to make our criminal justice expenditures as smart and productive as possible; and to ensure that 21st century challenges can be met with 21st century solutions.

Last August, I announced a new “Smart on Crime” initiative that’s dedicated to these goals, and is already allowing us to take meaningful steps forward.  Under this initiative, I mandated an important change to the Justice Department’s charging policies to ensure that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug-related crimes will now be reserved for only the most serious criminals.  Yesterday, I called upon the U.S. Sentencing Commission to take additional action by passing an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that would modestly reduce guideline penalties for drug trafficking offenses –  while retaining tough penalties for violent or career criminals.

Beyond these efforts, my colleagues and I are increasing our emphasis on proven diversion programs – such as drug rehabilitation and community service initiatives – that can serve as alternatives to incarceration in some cases.  And we’re investing in data-driven reentry strategies – and evaluating the collateral consequences of certain convictions – to enable formerly incarcerated individuals to stay on the right path and out of your courtrooms.

I’m confident that these reforms will help empower experts, policymakers, law enforcement officials – and jurists like you – to make our criminal justice system as fair and effective as possible.  And they will further the significant work that this Association has been leading for quite some time – to enhance programming for incarcerated people like the 12,000 women currently serving time in 28 federal institutions, and to improve their chances of successful rehabilitation and reentry.

Over the years, we’ve come to understand that women in prison frequently encounter unique obstacles and circumstances that have the potential to block progress, to diminish hope, and to limit opportunities to end destructive behaviors.  We’ve seen that incarcerated women are more likely to be victimized by physical or sexual abuse prior to incarceration – or to suffer from mental illness.  And we know that – in cases where these women served as primary caregivers to their children prior to arrest – separation from their loved ones can exacerbate psychological, substance abuse, or other issues they and their families may face. 

This is why the Federal Bureau of Prisons – under the leadership of Director Charles Samuels – has adopted a gender-informed management strategy, including the creation of a Wardens Advisory Group, to ensure we are providing the support systems women inmates need to build productive futures and transition successfully back to their communities.  For instance, under BOP’s Mothers and Infants Together Program, incarcerated pregnant women are permitted to transfer to community-based centers during the final trimester of pregnancy.  And they’re allowed to remain with their newborn children during the critical early months of life.

BOP also offers educational parenting programs to federal inmates with children of any age.  And they administer more than a dozen Residential Drug Abuse Programs – which include essential diagnostic, substance abuse, and mental health services – that can provide female inmates with the support they need to overcome drug habits and get their lives back on track. 

From these important efforts, to initiatives like the Resolve Program – which provides assistance to those who suffer from PTSD, histories of self-harm, and other trauma-related mental illnesses and personality disorders, and which now includes 11 female facilities and roughly 2,000 inmates – the Bureau of Prisons is moving aggressively to identify best practices and reach more and more of those in need.  I know the National Association of Women Judges has been a valuable partner in this work – engaging with our Wardens Advisory Group to examine issues facing female inmates across the country.  And I am pleased to announce today that BOP will soon implement a brand-new pilot initiative – known as “Foundation” – that will take these comprehensive efforts to a new level.

“Foundation” is designed specifically for women serving time in our prisons and jails.  And it employs a holistic approach – and a cutting-edge cognitive behavioral model – to help program participants develop basic skills, set positive goals, make constructive choices, and ultimately build better lives. 

By focusing on individual challenges – ranging from family reunification, to building a support community, enhancing resiliency, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions – this innovative pilot program will help new inmates and recidivists alike to acquire the tools and make the progress they need to successfully rejoin their communities.  It constitutes a promising starting point for potential refinement and expansion in the future.  And most importantly, it will have a tangible, positive impact on the lives of its participants – while deepening the Department’s work to construct a criminal justice system that deters and punishes crime, reduces recidivism, and keeps us safe.

These vital efforts go to the heart of who we are, and who we aspire to be – both as a nation and as a people.  They implicate our fundamental values.  And they depend – in no small measure – on a strong, independent, and impartial judiciary.

That’s why, as my colleagues and I keep moving forward – and consider additional improvements and innovations – we will continue to rely on your leadership.  We will draw upon your considerable expertise.  And we’ll depend upon your close engagement to advance the kinds of common-sense, data-driven solutions that many of you have championed for decades.

Although we may not yet have a legal system that lives up to all of our highest ideals, it’s clear that – through the efforts of leaders in this room, and many others throughout the country – we’re making encouraging progress.  We can be proud of all that’s been achieved in recent years, particularly in light of recent budget shortfalls and other obstacles.  And although a great deal remains to be done – and the results we seek will not come as quickly or as easily as we might like – I am confident in where this organization will help to lead us.  But I also caution you: progress is not inevitable and positive change is not a given.  Our history has demonstrated this.  It is only through commitment, hard work and consistency that we make our union more perfect.  I am proud to count you as colleagues and partners in the considerable work that lies ahead.  And I look forward to all that we must, and surely will, achieve together in the months and years to come.

Thank you.

Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016