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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Equal Justice Works 25th Anniversary Gala


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Laura [Stein] – for those gracious, and very kind, words. As he prepares for Sunday’s show, I just hope that David Gregory was listening.

It is an honor to stand with you tonight – and to be among so many old friends, essential partners, and distinguished colleagues – including Solicitor General Don Verrilli; White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler; and leaders from all across the Justice Department and Administration.

To the entire Equal Justice Works team, it’s a pleasure to congratulate you on 25 years of remarkable service. And I’d especially like to thank my good friend, David Stern, for his work in bringing us all together; and for his many contributions to the progress that we celebrate tonight.

For a quarter of a century now – since the day that Michael Caudell Feagan first rallied a small group of concerned, frustrated, and – ultimately – hopeful law students together to discuss ways to expand access to our legal system – this organization has been on the front lines of national efforts to ensure equal justice for all Americans. As your network of supporters and partners has grown, you’ve succeeded in raising awareness about the deficiencies and disparities that we must address. And you’ve mobilized law students and lawyers – from across the public and private sectors – to take action.


You’ve also established a vitally important meeting ground for prosecutors, public defenders, general counsels, judges, legal advocates, academics, and aspiring attorneys to come together and share experiences and ideas. And you’ve reminded lawyers across the country of the sacred responsibilities that we share: not only to strengthen our nation’s legal system, but to use our skills and training to help fulfill this country’s founding promise of equal justice under law.


This evening, as we reflect on the impact and importance of this organization – we have many reasons to be proud, and to be encouraged about the days ahead. But, as stewards of our nation’s justice system, we cannot yet be satisfied. And none of us can become complacent.

Fifty years ago – in his very first speech as Attorney General – Robert Kennedy declared that it was time to, “[prove] to the world that we really mean it when we say that all men are created free and equal before the law.”  Two years later, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution requires that defendants in criminal cases be provided counsel even if they cannot afford an attorney.  Yet, here we are today – a half century later – and it’s clear that the goal expressed by Attorney General Kennedy, and the rights afforded under Gideon, have yet to be fully realized.

And despite all the progress that Equal Justice Works has helped to achieve in the last two and a half decades – this organization’s mission has never been more important. All across the country – as communities, states, organizations, and individuals struggle to overcome once-in-a-generation economic challenges, the assistance of public interest lawyers has never been more urgently – or desperately – needed.

Of course, you already know this. You’ve seen the alarming statistics. You’ve read about defendants who have languished in jail for weeks, or even months, before counsel was appointed. And some of you have learned this truth in the hardest of ways – by experiencing it on the ground.

You’ve seen how in communities across the country, many children and adults enter our criminal justice system with nowhere to turn for guidance. You know that, in far too many jurisdictions, young people have been encouraged to waive their right to counsel; low-income adults have been denied the help they need from underfunded and understaffed public defender offices; and, each day, thousands of individuals are appearing in our courts with little understanding of their rights, the charges against them, or the potential sentences they face.

Even when lawyers are provided to the poor, too often they cannot represent their clients properly due to insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads, and inadequate oversight – that is, without the building blocks necessary for even the most basic public defender system to function properly.

This is nothing short of a crisis – one that many of the people in this room have been working for decades to address and overcome. And, today, although millions of Americans still struggle to access the legal services that they need and deserve – we can all be encouraged by the fact that thousands of bright and eager recent law graduates are lining up, and stepping forward, to practice law on behalf of under-served individuals, communities, and causes. Creating opportunities for that talent pool is critical – and it’s what Equal Justice Works is all about.

Tonight, I’d like to recognize a very special group of individuals who have helped us take meaningful, measurable steps forward: the more than 180 Equal Justice Works Fellows – and former Fellows – who are here with us; and who have worked, in a variety of different ways, to help ensure access to essential legal services.

I know that they already stood up once tonight, but I think this group deserves another round of applause.

All across the country, these Fellows have made a difference – by helping people in dire need access legal services; by securing much-needed benefits for disabled children, military families, and veterans; and by helping to safeguard – and to empower – the most vulnerable among us. Not only have they helped to ensure justice – they have saved time, court system resources, and precious taxpayer dollars. And their work has allowed our nation to move forward in addressing and overcoming our most pressing legal challenges.

Of course, I’m especially proud of the Justice Department’s contributions to these efforts – and of our ongoing commitment to ensuring that our nation’s legal system is accessible, effective, and a model of integrity. Nowhere is this commitment more clear than in the work of the Department’s Access to Justice Initiative.

Last year, we launched this landmark Initiative to help ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable, and accessible to everyone in this country – regardless of status or income. And, today, the Access to Justice office is collaborating with state, local, tribal, and federal officials – as well as a variety of nonprofit and private sector partners – to broaden access to quality legal representation.

I know that many of you are working closely with our Access to Justice team. And – as I’ve often told my good friend Jim Sandman, the President of the Legal Services Corporation, who I’m glad to see here tonight – with the assistance and engagement of our partners, I have no doubt that we can build upon the progress that’s been made in protecting funding for – and expanding access to – legal services. And we can do even more to raise awareness about the challenges that current – and future – lawyers must help to address.

I also want to mention another historic step that the Justice Department took last year – in awarding a $700,000 grant to launch the Public Defender Corps, a partnership between Equal Justice Works and the Southern Public Defender Training Center. This innovative program selects highly qualified new lawyers to work in public defender offices – and provides them with the training and support that they need to be effective.

Helping to get this program off the ground has been a priority for some time – in fact, since the spring of 2008. That’s when David Stern invited me – and a group of white-collar defense lawyers – to his home to meet with Jon Rapping, the founder of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, and some of the young attorneys that Jon had been working with.

Those of you who know Jon won’t be surprised to hear that he spoke passionately about the importance of providing more public defenders with the training that they needed – to become more confident in the courtroom and more skilled at leading investigations, making motions, and cross examining witnesses. Jon believed that these specially trained lawyers could help change the culture of public defender programs that were doing little more than processing people in and out of our courts.

Of course, Jon’s arguments were compelling. But I was stuck – and inspired – by a story that was shared by a young African-American woman named Janelle, who was working as a public defender in a small rural town outside of Atlanta. She had started her career as a public defender with great enthusiasm – committed to providing her clients with the very best representation. But Janelle lacked the support she needed to succeed. And when she experienced hostility – from both prosecutors and judges – she felt her confidence slipping away. She described how she was laughed at by one judge while attempting to make a motion; and how some of her clients demeaned her – calling her racial epithets, and asking for a "real lawyer." In that environment, she’d thought about giving up – and getting out of this critical service area.

Fortunately, Janelle met Jon Rapping. After Jon’s two-week “boot camp,” Janelle said she emerged “a changed person.” Not only was she, once again, committed to ensuring the very best for her clients – she knew how to provide the very best. Janelle gained the strength and tools necessary to stand up to her adversaries, to earn the respect of her colleagues, and to succeed in the courtroom. In short, she became a first-rate defense lawyer.

That night, I turned to David and told him that we needed more lawyers like Janelle – and more training opportunities like the one Jon had created.

“Maybe one day,” David said to me, “you’ll be in a position to help."

Nine months later, I became the Attorney General. And – let me assure you – from day one, David has been reminding me that we had a lot of work to do, and a lot of people to help.

Thanks to him – and to many other dedicated leaders and partners – in August, the inaugural class of the Public Defender Corps began their training. These 18 extraordinary lawyers were selected from more than 450 applicants – and have brought their new skills to offices in Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Tonight, I am pleased to report that all 18 of them are here with us – and I’d like to invite you to join me in a congratulating these exceptional, highly effective attorneys on all that they are accomplishing.

With their contributions, I have no doubt that we will prove the power of this model, which many are now describing as “Teach for America for Lawyers” – and that more states and counties across the country will want to replicate this ground-breaking program.

But I’m not just counting on these young public defenders. I’m counting on every person here to help address and overcome the challenges that – 25 years ago – first inspired the creation of Equal Justice Works.

Tonight, as we celebrate this milestone anniversary, let us also commit ourselves to carrying out the founding mission of this organization – as well as the obligations that every lawyer shares.

Let us act with optimism, without delay, with adherence to the highest standards of professionalism, and with allegiance to the legal system that we are so privileged to serve. This is our collective responsibility. And it must become our common cause – in the work that we do each day, and in the support that we provide to those in need of our assistance.

Never forget that – if we work together, if we stay committed – the change, and the progress, that we seek are possible. Each one of us must find new ways – and seize every opportunity – to make the promise of our justice system a reality for all Americans; and to advance our nation’s long – and ongoing – pursuit of a more equitable, more just, and more perfect union.

Thank you all.

Updated August 18, 2015