Remarks as prepared for delivery.
Thank you, Ramona Romero, for your kind introduction. And congratulations to the very deserving recipients of this year’s awards: Christina Hernandez-Malaby, Mari Carmen Aponte, and, of course, Justice Sotomayor.
I would like to thank Congressman Martin Heinrich and New Mexico Attorney General Gary King for their hospitality and for joining us today.
It is my great privilege to join you for the 34th annual conference of the Hispanic National Bar Association, particularly on the occasion of your first judicial conference.
We gather at an hour of great promise for our nation. We have a new President -- we have a renewed commitment to the cause of equal justice -- and we have a newly-sworn Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
But despite the promise of this moment, our nation faces great challenges, as well.
We have endured a lengthy recession that has left millions of Americans struggling to make one paycheck last until the next one comes. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their jobs and their homes.
The effects of this recession have been felt broadly – in all regions and in virtually every neighborhood. And although there are new signs that the economy is turning around, many of our most vulnerable communities – particularly communities of color – have shouldered a disproportionate share of the economic burden during the past two years.
As members of the legal profession, it is our responsibility to help ease that burden when possible – so that all Americans have the chance to prosper. The men and women who created the HNBA several decades ago understood this special responsibility to fight for justice.
When Latino children were denied entry into schools and Mexican-Americans faced unlawful discrimination in the West, the founders of the HNBA used the law to change lives for the better. For in the final analysis, the law serves as the great equalizer of our society – and it is still our job to make it so.
As we gather for your 34th annual conference, your membership rolls are larger – and your influence is greater – than ever before.
As a result of your efforts, our nation’s law firms, courtrooms, and legislative bodies are more diverse than at any time in our nation’s history.
The Obama Administration and this Justice Department share your commitment to increasing the diversity of our profession -- on the Bench and in all aspects of the federal government. As the nation’s law firm, the Justice Department can and should reflect the diversity of the communities that we are sworn to protect and that we so proudly serve. A diverse Department of Justice is a strong Department of Justice.
I would like to highlight two nominees for senior positions within the Department who reflect this commitment. When the President nominated Tom Perez to serve as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, he chose an eminently qualified candidate for this critically important job.
Tom was an effective advocate for the rights of all Americans during his prior service in the Department’s Civil Rights Division, before becoming Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services. And he has served the state of Maryland well since Governor O’Malley appointed Tom Secretary of Labor almost three years ago.
Tom also served as special counsel for Senator Edward Kennedy. It is a fitting tribute to Senator Kennedy and his passion for justice and commitment to the cause of civil rights that Tom is poised to lead the Civil Rights Division. I look forward to welcoming Tom back to the Justice Department. The Division, and the nation, will benefit from his leadership, his legal expertise, and his tenacity in the enforcement of our civil rights laws.
We are also excited by the President’s nomination of Ignacia Moreno, someone you know well, to serve as Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Ignacia is an environmental law expert, with nearly two decades experience in both the public and private sectors.
Like Tom, Ignacia’s return to the Department of Justice will be a homecoming. She was appointed by President Clinton to serve as a Special Assistant at the Justice Department in 1994 -- then as the Principal Counsel in the Environment and Natural Resources Division. And, as you well know, she serves as pro bono General Counsel to the HNBA. It would be disingenuous if I told you that I was sorry to take Ignacia from you. Your loss is our gain, and all of us at the Department of Justice are excited to have her.
Both of these extraordinary individuals – Tom Perez and Ignacia Moreno – were endorsed by the HNBA. They both possess the experience, wisdom and professionalism to be outstanding representatives of this Justice Department. They will serve all Americans with great skill.
But their vital work cannot begin until the United States Senate confirms their nominations. I call on the Senate to promptly do so. The Justice Department and the nation will benefit from Tom’s and Ignacia’s leadership. The resolution of many of the problems our country faces will be hastened by their entry on duty at Justice.
Tom and Ignacia will be two of our most high-profile Justice Department officials -- but our commitment to excellence and diversity extends well beyond the Administration’s senior posts. We are actively seeking young, talented attorneys in the early stages of their careers to join the Department of Justice. One of them, Raul Torrez, has joined me here today. Raul is a native of Albuquerque, a member of the HNBA, and the Department of Justice White House Fellow.
We in the Obama Administration want the next generation of leaders – people like Raul and Christina Hernandez-Malaby, and many others here today – working for the American people. I know that this is a priority for Ramona Romero and the HNBA, and I couldn’t agree more. The Obama Administration and the Justice Department are committed to a government that is broadly reflective of our nation. This commitment extends to our federal judiciary as well.
One of the HNBA’s earliest major efforts – back in 1971 – was to lobby the White House to appoint a Latino Justice to the United States Supreme Court. It took much longer than many of us had hoped, but this year, that call was finally answered.
As a father of three children, two of them girls, it gives me enormous pride to see this milestone reached. Today in America, children can look to Justice Sotomayor as proof-positive that what matters in this country is not your family’s name -- but whether you are willing to work hard to make a name for yourself.
Children born today and in the future will no longer find it remarkable that a President of the United States looks like Barack Obama or that a Justice of the Supreme Court looks like Sonia Sotomayor. That should give us tremendous hope for our country’s future.
But as you well know, the appointment of one Latina to the Supreme Court does not represent the endpoint of our efforts to build a more equal nation. Indeed, although it is an historic addition to the Supreme Court -- it also means that there will be one fewer Latina on our nation’s Circuit Courts.
This is a happy trade, to be sure -- but we will continue to seek outstanding candidates of all backgrounds for all levels of the federal bench -- and as always, we appreciate the valuable input we receive from the HNBA.
We seek diversity not just for its own sake, but because our nation is stronger when people from all backgrounds participate in the administration of justice.
When I was confirmed as Attorney General, I made it clear that during my tenure, we would restore luster to the Justice Department’s "crown jewel" -- our Civil Rights Division. I promised that the Civil Rights Division would fight discrimination as fiercely as the Criminal Division fights crime -- and that we would once again honor the spirit of the movement that inspired its creation.
Seven months later, I can say with confidence that although much work lies ahead, we are well on our way. Let me say this very clearly: The Civil Rights Division is once again open for business.
One example of our renewed focus comes in a case with which many of you are familiar. In July of last year, a group of teenagers in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, attacked a man named Luis Ramirez in a city park while yelling racial slurs.
Ramirez died two days later from injuries he sustained in the beating. In May of this year, following a week-long trial, a state jury acquitted two of the defendants of all charges of violence except for simple assault, which is a second degree misdemeanor.
The Department of Justice has launched an independent review of the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident.
We are also intensely focused on our responsibility to ensure that the voting rights of all Americans are upheld. In April, we announced a settlement with Fort Bend County, Texas, following allegations that the county failed to provide an effective bilingual education program for Spanish-speaking voters -- as required by the Voting Rights Act.
As a result of this settlement, bilingual election officials will be trained and available to assist Spanish-speaking voters at polling places -- so that the language a citizen speaks is no barrier to his or her constitutionally-guaranteed right to vote.
Another example is our effort to combat housing discrimination – an underreported threat that continues to plague many communities of color. We recently settled a lawsuit against Cottage Manor Apartments in Lakewood, New Jersey -- which alleged that the owners and managers of the apartment complex violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against Latino and African-American tenants. We alleged that they did so by assigning or transferring people of color to less-desirable units and charging them higher rents than other tenants for comparable units.
Within the Department, we have also launched an internal working group to address the complex yet critical issue of immigration reform. President Obama has made it clear that comprehensive reform will be a major priority for his Administration.
We will support the President’s efforts to set a new national policy that secures our borders and enforces our laws, and that at the same time reaffirms our heritage as a nation of immigrants who are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. Our working group will also look for ways to enhance coordination with the Department of Homeland Security and to improve our own internal procedures so that we enforce our immigration laws fairly and justly and humanely.
In these first seven months of my tenure at the Justice Department, we have begun to turn the page and write a new chapter that renews our historic mission to be the people’s law firm.
We are aggressively investigating allegations of discrimination, fraud and abuse, and prosecuting when the evidence warrants it. Internally, we are bringing talented new blood into our ranks and giving them the tools to do their jobs effectively.
But there is one critical tool that continues to elude us, and in closing, I ask for your continued help on this important issue. Earlier this summer, I testified before Congress in support of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
This was not my first effort to promote hate crimes legislation. In fact, I first urged Congress to pass hate crimes legislation nearly twelve years ago, when I was Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton Administration.
Twelve years is far too long to wait for the tools we need to protect all Americans from the most heinous forms of bias-motivated violence – just the kind of bigotry that the HNBA was created to fight. Every day that goes by without this legislation, our pursuit of justice is hindered. I need your continued help and support to pass this important legislation.
I know that in this and other battles still to come, we at the Department of Justice can count on you. After all, the HNBA was founded to fight the very kinds of injustice that we are still seeking to eradicate.
At this -- your 34th annual conference -- your influence in American law spreads more broadly than it ever has before. You must use that influence to make an America that lives up to the language in our founding documents and create a country that truly values each of its inhabitants. We are closer to these ideals than we ever have been before. But it will only be through continued vigilance and determined work that we will reach the more perfect union the founders of this great organization envisioned. If we work together, if we remain united, if we support each other, there is no reason why we cannot achieve great things in the coming years. I pledge to lead a Department of Justice of which you can be proud: A Department of Justice that never forgets its vital responsibility to insure opportunity and equality for all in our nation. I look forward to working with you all in this great endeavor.