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Attorney General Holder Delivers Remarks at the Global Law Summit to Commemorate the 800-Year Anniversary of Magna Carta


United Kingdom

Thank you for that kind introduction.  It’s a pleasure to be back in London this morning, where history has brought our predecessors so many times before.  And it’s a great privilege to join you all in opening this important forum – as we gather to reaffirm the rights and principles of Magna Carta; as we pledge to renew our shared commitment to these timeless ideals; and as we resolve to carry them forward into a new century.

I’d like to thank the board of the Global Law Summit for bringing us together today.  I want to thank Prime Minister [David] Cameron, members of Her Majesty’s government, and of course the City of London for hosting this unique event.  Most of all, I want to thank the sponsors, speakers, and delegates who are here with us for lending your voices – and perspectives – to this historic gathering.

It was 800 years ago this June – just two dozen miles from here, along the banks of the River Thames at Runnymede – that King John forever changed the course of history when he put his seal to a sheet of parchment and extended basic rights to those subject to his reign.

The circumstances that gave rise to this Great Charter belong not merely to another millennium, but another age.  Yet this singular document, comprising just 54 lines of Latin text, would come to be regarded as the source to which many fundamental building blocks of liberty trace their origin.  And as we convene this morning, the enumerated rights and bedrock principles set down in Magna Carta remain as contemporary as any challenge we now face – standing at the center of our modern societies and our systems of government.

From the reigns of successive monarchs, to the fires of revolution; from the birth of modern democracy, to the global movement for civil rights – our dedication to these principles has been repeatedly challenged, and rigorously tested, over the last eight centuries.  Our collective history has been shaped by our fidelity to these essential tenets.  And our future will be determined, in no small measure, by our ongoing efforts to venerate their spirit – and vindicate their promise.

It was during the American civil rights movement – as millions marched, and rallied, and sacrificed to bring an end to my country’s long night of racial injustice – that I first became conscious of this notion in my own life.  In June of 1963 as a young boy, I watched, on a black-and-white television in the basement of my childhood home, as a charismatic young President, John F. Kennedy – and another Attorney General, Robert Kennedy – sought to bend the course of history towards justice by enforcing a court order that allowed two courageous African-American students to enroll in a segregated Southern university.

Many years after that indelible moment, one of those brave students, Vivian Malone, would become my sister-in-law.  And as I began to walk the path that would take me from that very small house in New York City, to the United States Department of Justice, to this last official trip to this great nation as a representative of my government – a journey made possible by the sacrifices of countless trailblazers who had gone before – I have never forgotten  those images, that dramatic “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” or the formative lesson it imparted: that the law, at its best, can be a strong, deft instrument for positive change – a framework for doing that which is right.

It was this vision of promise and possibility – a promise rooted in Magna Carta, broadened by the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights it inspired, and illustrated by the examples of my nation's civil rights movement and the call to service by the brothers Kennedy – that first led me to dream of a life of public service.  It was the same conception of justice that drove me to build my career – in both the public and the private sectors – as a steward of America’s legal system.  And it is the same imperative – to do that which is right – that guides my colleagues and me, at every level of my country’s Justice Department, even today.

I am deeply proud of all that these dedicated men and women have accomplished, over the past six years, in securing the rights that flow from Magna Carta’s timeless guarantees.  During my tenure as Attorney General, we have taken decisive action to reform America’s criminal justice system – and pull it closer to our founding ideals – while keeping our people safe.

We have kept faith with our belief in the power of our great judicial system and the appropriate interrogation techniques used thereunder – which owe so much to your own – to fairly and effectively adjudicate any cases, including those that implicate threats to our national security.

We have fought hard to secure the civil rights of all people, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society – and taken strong action to safeguard the most basic of American rights: the right to vote.

We have begun to realize the promise of equality for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters, and their families.  And we are forcefully supporting those who have taken the struggle for marriage equality to the highest court in our land.

We have stood firm against financial fraud, and worked to bring fairness to the rules by which our commercial enterprises operate.  We have taken rigorous steps to protect the environment.  And we have presided over the first reduction in America’s federal prison population in decades, along with a continued decrease in the national crime rate – the first time these two critical markers have declined together in more than forty years.

Now, despite these extraordinary results, there’s no question that a great deal of work remains to be done.  But the progress we have secured, and the difference we’ve made, is real.  Through all of these efforts, we have been guided by a steadfast devotion to the core protections of Magna Carta; a dedication to securing the vastly expanded rights in which they take modern expression; and a determination to harness the law as a tool for protecting our people.

No principle is more fundamental than Magna Carta’s single most powerful assurance: that justice is not an abstraction defined merely by the powerful.  It lives in our daily work and lives.  And it must never be an act that’s imposed arbitrarily, by the state upon the individual.  Rather, it is a sacred compact, to be fulfilled by the people and their government, working side by side.

This is an ideal that must be realized in every interaction between our institutions, our laws, and the lives of our citizens.  Like many of you, this is something I’ve seen firsthand.  During my time as chief federal prosecutor for the District of Columbia – during the mid-1990s – Washington, D.C., was a city in crisis.  And I saw, with my own eyes, that mistrust between law enforcement and local residents was – in some areas – both corrosive and widespread.

In response, my colleagues and I launched a community prosecution initiative – an innovative program that led us to build engagement and establish rapport between prosecutors, police officers, community leaders and the residents we were sworn to protect.  Over time, these connections helped to restore trust and strengthen the fabric of the community.  And as we speak, today’s Justice Department is employing the very same approach – by implementing engagement and community policing strategies from coast to coast – to advance a critical national dialogue to address mistrust, and resolve long-simmering tensions, that have been exposed by a series of recent tragedies.

We know that doing so will enable our brave men and women in law enforcement to perform their dangerous jobs with maximum safety and effectiveness.  It will help us to ensure the unbiased and equal treatment of every citizen.  And it will reinforce the notion that public safety is not a cause to be served by a courageous few, but a calling to be fulfilled by citizens as well as public servants.

Of course, our ongoing effort to build community trust also implicates broader questions about the fairness of America’s justice system as a whole.  And just as Magna Carta provided an early conception of the law as a social contract, so, too, did it give rise to another key principle that must always guide our work: the notion that the rule of law is dependent on the guarantee of due process.

This guarantee hinges on the integrity of our institutions, on remedies such as habeas corpus, and on the ability of the legal system to deliver fair and impartial outcomes – something I saw during my service as a judge in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

During my time on the bench, I came face-to-face with the destructive cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration that has trapped far too many people and weakened entire communities.  I recognized the counterproductive practices that have contributed to an unprecedented rise in the American prison population over the last 30 years.  And I grew determined to help forge a better path.

As we speak – with support from leaders and experts across the political spectrum – my colleagues and I are working to break this destructive cycle, to strengthen the federal justice system in the United States, and to overturn our country’s overreliance on incarceration.  About 18 months ago, I launched a series of reforms known as the Smart on Crime initiative.  As part of this initiative, I mandated policy changes to ensure that low-level, nonviolent defendants – who stand accused of certain federal drug crimes – will face sentences appropriate to their alleged conduct, rather than excessive mandatory minimum sentences better suited to violent criminals or kingpins.

Today, I am proud to report that – by every measure we’ve seen so far – these reforms are working as intended.  Since the launch of the Smart on Crime initiative, we’ve witnessed a decline in the number of people charged with federal drug trafficking crimes.  We’ve experienced an increase in the seriousness of federal crimes charged, indicating that resources are being used to pursue the most dangerous criminals.  And we’ve seen an unprecedented reduction in our reliance on mandatory minimums – without any impact on our ability to elicit cooperation or secure guilty pleas.

Across the board, these changes are improving the efficiency, the effectiveness and the fairness of our criminal justice system.  But even this fundamental notion – that justice must be applied equally, to every individual – rests on yet another principle inherited from Magna Carta: that the law itself must be held as supreme.  That no one is above it.  And that no one is immune from either its protections or its limitations.

It was nearly four decades ago, during my first job at the United States Department of Justice, that I came to understand the singular importance of this principle.  At the beginning of my career, I spent a dozen years prosecuting elected leaders and public officials accused of betraying the public trust.  I witnessed the acutely corrosive nature of official corruption.  And I saw how it can imperil our values, undermine the rule of law, and impose costs that are immense and long-lasting.

I also saw, as my career unfolded, that these challenges are anything but unique to the United States.  That’s why, as Attorney General, I have been proud to work with my colleagues in the United Kingdom – and around the world – to make anticorruption and asset forfeiture major priorities for the community of nations.

Five years ago, I launched a Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative to help the Justice Department combat large-scale foreign corruption – and return stolen funds to the citizens to whom they belong.  More recently, I stood with my international counterparts in Doha, and in Marrakech, for the first and second Arab Forums on Asset Recovery.  And last spring, here in London, I helped to convene the first-ever Ukraine Forum on Asset Recovery, dedicated to supporting the Ukrainian people as they strive to chart their own, independent course to safety, prosperity, and peace.

The aims of this work are far from transitory.  They reflect a universal desire – as old as recorded time – to shape one’s own future.  And they underscore the enduring importance of Magna Carta not just as a legal document, but as a potent symbol of freedom under the rule of law – a symbol whose power and significance are truly global, and whose reach must be made global as well.

After all, we know that our democratic values, our open societies – and our commitment to tolerance and inclusion – must be continuously protected against intolerance, extremism, and hate.  And we are bound together by our conviction that the world must stand united in support of the rule of law – and in opposition to all who threaten it.

This is the reality that drives President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy, which lays out a credible vision of leadership – through patience, persistence, and a clear sense of purpose – in concert with America’s global allies.  The events now unfolding in Syria and Iraq remind us every day that we cannot afford to be passive in the face of violent extremism, however it is cloaked.  It is clear that we must address those underlying causes that tend to breed this mindless desire to join a cause that is in the truest sense of the word – barbaric – and antithetical to all that we celebrate today.  And we must ensure that there can be no impunity for those who actively contemplate committing terrorist acts – because, if we wait for our citizens to travel to regions in conflict, to become radicalized, and to return home, it may be too late to adequately protect our security. 

As we assemble this morning – in an hour of challenge and tremendous consequence – we are separated from the sealing of Magna Carta by a gulf of time; by the sweep of eight centuries; by the rise and fall of empires; by the ravages of global war.  Yet the principles of this Great Charter endure.  Our governments, and our societies, continue to be defined by the protection of due process, the supremacy of law, and the engagement of our citizens in the work of public safety and economic prosperity.  And just as our histories are bound together at Runnymede – where, today, there stands a monument to Magna Carta, built by my American Bar Association – so, too, does our sovereign soil intermingle there, along the banks of the Thames.

A short distance from the Magna Carta monument lies a block of stone inscribed to the memory of a man who spent his life in defense of the principles that found their origin in that meadow – the very same leader whose service inspired my own career, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  This memorial rests on land that was given to the American people, as a symbolic gift, by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  And it speaks not just to the contributions of one individual – or the common heritage of our legal systems – but to the common aspirations of our peoples.

Through 800 years of transformative change, our progress has been rooted in values that are long-shared; values that define us.  Over time, Magna Carta’s story has become our story.  Its history has shaped our history.  And its future will define our future.

So the question now before this gathering – and the decision that rests with each of us – is whether, and how, this progress will continue.  What will history record of this moment – our moment – in this age of possibility and peril?  What will we do to bolster the protections with which our leaders are now entrusted?  And how will future generations measure our worthiness to carry Magna Carta’s principles into yet another new century?

My own dearest hope, for the fleeting time I’ve been privileged to stand with you on the world stage, has been to do honor to the faith that’s been placed in me – by my country; by my fellow citizens; and by the legacies of all who have gone before.  So let it be said of us – when this brief moment is completed – that we held true to the path we have been walking together for eight centuries.

Let it be said that we strengthened the social contract – and served as protectors not just of our citizens, but of our systems.

Let it be said that we fought for the equality of all people in the eyes of the law.

And let it be said that – in an hour of grave danger, just as those who preceded us – we faithfully bore the burdens of justice.  That, in a time of contemporary great darkness, we held high the torch of liberty and principle. 

And that, in a time of uncommon threat, we dared – with intention, with clarity of purpose, and with an audacity that will be long remembered – to rise, together, against the tyranny of injustice and inhumanity.

May this be our legacy – and our challenge – to all who may succeed us in this endeavor.

I’d like to thank you all, once again, for your leadership and your steadfast support over the years.  It has been the greatest honor of my professional life to stand with you in this work, to count you as colleagues and partners, and to join you in advancing the cause of justice.  More than an occupation, this has become my life’s work.  And in the months and years to come – and as my time in public service draws to a close – it will remain a calling that continues to push me forward, wherever my path may take me.

I wish you all a most productive Summit – may it help to lead us all to a new age of justice and enlightenment and be truly worthy of the promise of Runnymede.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015