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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the American Film Institute’s Screening of Gideon’s Army


United States

Thank you, Maya [Harris], for those kind words; for your leadership at the Ford Foundation; and for your friendship over the years.  I’d also like to thank Dawn [Porter] for her tireless efforts to bring this outstanding documentary to life – and I want to congratulate her on her appearance on The Daily Show earlier this week.

It’s a pleasure to join you in welcoming so many friends – including Maya’s husband, Associate Attorney General Tony West – other distinguished colleagues, leaders, passionate advocates, indispensable partners, and members of the public to the National Portrait Gallery this evening.  And it’s a privilege to help introduce an extraordinary, inspiring, and deeply moving film that shines a light on the difficulties and deficiencies that plague America’s indigent defense systems every day – despite the fact that half a century has passed since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which set those systems in motion.

“Gideon’s Army” is a documentary that challenges each of us – as legal professionals, as policymakers, and as patriotic citizens from all backgrounds and walks of life – to reclaim the values enshrined in this important ruling, to ask difficult questions about our criminal justice system as a whole, and to recommit ourselves – as individuals, and as a people – to realizing the founding promise that has always stood at the core of our identity as a nation:  of equal justice, and equal opportunity, for all.

Fifty years ago this March, this promise drove Justice Hugo Black – writing for a unanimous Supreme Court – to observe that “in our adversary system, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured of a fair trial unless counsel is provided to him.”  Like each of the stories you’re about to see, the journey that led to this moment began quite humbly, with an act as simple as it was profoundly optimistic – when a poor man named Clarence Earl Gideon, who had been denied a court-appointed lawyer and convicted of a felony – took up a pencil and a sheaf of prison stationary, drafted a petition arguing that his right to due process had been violated, and addressed that petition to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the decades since this remarkable case, when the Court sided with Gideon and called for his retrial – at which he was found not guilty – public defender systems have been established and strengthened in states across the country.  Significant strides have been made in expanding access to quality representation for more of those who need it.  Yet – despite the undeniable progress our nation has witnessed over the last half-century – America’s indigent defense systems continue to exist in a state of crisis.  And, as this film demonstrates, a great deal of work remains before us.

During my time as a judge on the Superior Court here in Washington, D.C. – and, later, as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia – I saw this reality firsthand.  Day after day, lines of young men – most often African American young men – streamed through my courtroom.  In some cases, they had committed serious crimes.  In almost every case, they had had long histories of interactions with social services – and educational and juvenile justice systems – which had failed to interrupt the dangerous and potentially avoidable trajectory that led them to my courtroom.  Although many of these defendants were fortunate enough to be represented by exceptional lawyers at the Public Defender Service, similarly situated defendants around the country are not always so effectively represented.

I came to understand the devastating consequences – and unacceptable moral costs – of the inequalities that unfold every day in America’s courtrooms.  Inadequate systems of defense, wrongful convictions, and unjust sentences result in excessive waste.  They exact a human toll that’s impossible to measure.  And they erode the public’s faith in the ability of our criminal justice system to deliver just outcomes.

Fortunately, a small group of courageous, passionate, and extremely dedicated attorneys – like Travis, June, and Brandy, whose stories are featured in the film, and who I had the privilege of meeting backstage a few moments ago – are standing on the front lines of our efforts to respond to this crisis.  Under the leadership of remarkable men and women like Jon Rapping – the founder of Gideon’s Promise, formerly known as the Southern Public Defender Training Center, who we’re fortunate to have with us tonight – they’re fighting to make a difference, once case at a time.  They’re working to restore and improve public defender programs that – in some places – do little more than process people in and out of our courts.  And they’re striving to secure the resources and training that public defenders need to provide the best possible representation for their clients.

Like Dawn – and the rest of the team that’s responsible for this important documentary – I’m inspired by their dedication.  And I’m proud to report that today’s Department of Justice has made a strong commitment to supporting their efforts.

In fact, the year after I became Attorney General, we partnered with Jon’s organization and a group called Equal Justice Works to launch a Public Defender Corps to provide assistance to highly-qualified lawyers who work in public defender offices.  That same year, I launched a brand-new office within the Justice Department – known as the Access to Justice Initiative – to help protect the essential rights guaranteed by Gideon, and improve the delivery, quality, and availability of legal services for everyone in our country – regardless of status or income.

In the three years since then, our Access to Justice team has engaged with a variety of state, local, tribal, and federal officials – as well as a variety of nonprofit and private sector partners – to bolster this work, and broaden its impact.  I’m pleased that our Acting Senior Counselor for Access to Justice, Deborah Leff, is here with us tonight – along with a few of her colleagues.  But I also want to note that these efforts are not relegated to a single office.

A few months ago – and just a couple of blocks away – the Justice Department hosted a special observance marking the 50th anniversary of the Gideon ruling.  At that event, I announced $1.8 million in grant funding to strengthen a variety of indigent defense programs and initiatives that are making a difference at the state and local levels, and to invest in strategies that show the most promise.

We can all be proud of this work – and encouraged by the results we’re already beginning to see.  But, as this searing documentary makes crystal clear – on its own, this will never be enough.  The challenges we face are great.  The stakes could hardly be higher.  And budget cuts at every level of government – which have been compounded, this year, by sequestration – are undermining our ability to continue this work, to provide the support that our allies need, and to ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice across America.

Today, it falls to our generation – in the spirit of those who have come before us, and in honor of those whose stories we’re about to hear – to preserve, and keep working to strengthen, this extraordinary system.  It’s our obligation – as leaders, as lawyers, as parents, and as concerned citizens – to dare greatly once again.  And it’s our solemn responsibility to leave tonight’s screening and panel discussion more determined than ever to reclaim the promise that once drove a destitute man to ask the highest court in the land to hear his case – and drove that Court to respond, in the words of my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, by “[changing] the whole course of legal history . . .”

As we write the next chapter in this history, I’d like to thank Jon, Travis, June, and Brandy – along with our distinguished panelists – for helping to show us the way.  I’d like to thank everyone involved in the production and distribution of this documentary for committing these remarkable stories to film.  And I invite you to help me welcome the director and producer of “Gideon’s Army,” Dawn Porter, to the stage.

Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016