Thank you, Judge [Ricky] Roberts. I appreciate your kind words, and – because we’ve been friends for so many years – I’m especially grateful for the stories you left out. As always, it is good to be with you and to be among so many leaders I have long admired and continue to rely on. Yes, Judge [Ann] Williams, I am talking to you, in particular.
Let me also thank Paula Lucas and her team – as well as Judge [Patricia Brown] Holmes and the other members of the Board, Associate Board, and Advisory Committee – for inviting and welcoming me here.
It is a privilege to be part of this year’s conference and to join you all in discussing the responsibilities that we share – responsibilities to ourselves and our society; to our profession and our predecessors; and, of course, to America’s next generation of law students, attorneys, and jurists.
For nearly two decades, many of you have been coming together – through the Just the Beginning Foundation – to focus on these responsibilities, to find new ways to give back, and, above all, to help our country move forward. The training and educational programs you’ve developed have improved the strength and integrity of our entire legal system. And your efforts to honor the service of African Americans in the federal judiciary have helped to ensure that this tradition lives on.
Tonight, together, we have the chance to consider how we can take this work to a new level; and how we will reach back, lift up, and – ultimately – make certain that the progress and achievements we now celebrate continue and grow.
In “reaching back” into our history, I am reminded of a fact that was perhaps best – if most bluntly – expressed by Justice Thurgood Marshall. “None of us,” he once said, “got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.”
That’s right. None of us.
In addition to our shared values and vision, we all have one important thing in common. Each of us has walked through a doorway of possibility that the leaders and lawyers who came before us pried open. Today, we continue to move forward, guided by the examples of William Henry Hastie and Benjamin Hooks; of Charles Hamilton Houston, Judge Higginbotham, and Judge Parsons; of the many illustrious African-American jurists, attorneys, and academics who have inspired our nation – as well as the less famous, but no less influential, role models and mentors who have touched our own lives.
Growing up, one of my great blessings was being raised by parents and grandparents who encouraged me to dream big. Despite the struggles I regularly saw, and the challenges that often surrounded me on the streets of Queens – my family assured me that I could be, and could achieve, anything I desired. And while I had a great deal of support from my family, I had few examples of professional success. In fact, as I child, I only knew one lawyer.
But that one lawyer looked like me. He lived in my neighborhood. He talked with me about what he did. And he helped me to believe in what I could become. His single example, and the time he spent with me, made all the difference. It broadened the possibilities, and expectations, I held for myself. And it continues to remind me of why we must reach out to students and aspiring attorneys; why we must create opportunities for those who easily could be left out and left behind to contribute to the cause of justice and the work of the judiciary; and why we must make time for the conversations and personal interactions that just may inspire and pave the way for those who will follow us.
Of course, my career path was the result of more than just one person’s influence. I was also inspired by what I saw as the power of the law to change lives. During law school, I spent a summer interning at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, where I had the chance to learn about, and even work on, some of the most important discrimination suits of the day. I saw how the efforts of dedicated attorneys can help to restore hope and rebuild dreams.
I wanted to become one of those lawyers. I wanted to be part of a profession that, since our nation’s earliest days, has taken up the challenge of achieving and administering justice. During and after law school, I was supported by several Department of Justice attorneys who served as my mentors. And, throughout this time, I was encouraged by the stories and examples of our predecessors – leaders who believed so deeply in the values and promise of this nation that they chose to serve the cause of justice, even when they were excluded by our nation’s system of justice . Their commitment made it possible for all of us to follow our dreams into the law – and to use that opportunity to improve the lives of others.
Now, it may be tempting – when you look at the many accomplished students, attorneys, and judges in this room, or at the diversity of people walking the halls of Congress, or at the man sitting in the Oval Office – to think that “just the beginning” now has become “the middle” or even “the end.” But it will take more than the election of the first African-American President – and certainly more than the appointment of the first African-American Attorney General – for our nation to realize its founding promise of equal justice and equal opportunity.
Today, our nation’s struggle for racial and social equality continues. And the goals that inspired the creation of this foundation are yet to be realized.
Although nearly half a century has passed since Judge Parsons integrated the federal judiciary, less than 9 percent of federal judges are African American. Although minorities account for more than 30 percent of our population, just over 10 percent of America’s lawyers are minorities. That doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of future minority lawyers out there. It only means that their talents have not yet been shared; their potential has not yet been unleashed.
But this foundation is paving the way forward. From your Middle School Law Camp and High School Extern Program to that final push you give to so many law school graduates, your programming is helping to ensure that today’s students can become tomorrow’s attorneys, judges, professors, and leaders.
As the words, and the dream, of one of Atlanta’s great leaders still remind us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” To me, Dr. King could have been referring to the light of youth. And, for me, it’s clear that if we help our young people understand the strength of our justice system to right wrong – and assure them that their own skills and talents can shape and improve the course of our entire country – then the darkness that still lingers will soon, and finally, be gone.
On behalf of the entire Department of Justice, I want you all to know how much your efforts to strengthen our nation’s legal community – and continue our nation’s hard-won progress – are appreciated. This evening, I also want to tell you about some of the work we’re doing – in our own house – to promote diversity among our ranks. Through the Diversity Management Initiative that I launched earlier this year, we are actively recruiting the best-qualified employees of all backgrounds. We have assembled a Diversity Management Advisory Council, created a new position – Deputy Associate Attorney General for Diversity Management – and are taking meaningful steps to track and to encourage diversity in every area of our work. By creating a more inclusive Justice Department, I have every expectation that we’re also becoming a stronger Justice Department.
This year has also brought another Justice Department milestone – and a significant step forward in fulfilling our nation’s promise of equal access to our justice system. As all of you – especially the judges here – know, we aren’t where we need to be on this front. It’s no exaggeration to say that our indigent defense problem has reached crisis proportions. And it’s no secret that far too many public defender offices are underfunded and understaffed.
These are systemic problems. And they call for reinvention, not merely reform. That’s why the Department has made an historic and permanent commitment to expanding and ensuring access to legal services. This spring, we established a new Access to Justice Office, led by Harvard Law Professor Larry Tribe. Through this landmark initiative, we are working to ensure that quality legal representation is available and accessible. And I have no doubt that this effort will enhance our entire justice system.
But if we are to succeed in meeting this goal, the Justice Department can’t move forward alone. We need your engagement. And I ask that each of you seek out and seize every opportunity to strengthen our justice system – in your courtrooms, your casework, or through your pro bono activities.
With your help, there’s no question that the Justice Department can advance the extraordinary progress that’s been made over the last 20 months – to keep our people safe from terrorism and violent crime; to fight fraud and promote fairness in our markets; to improve criminal discovery preparation and policy; to ensure that federal sentencing and corrections policies are fair; to combat hate crimes; and to protect civil rights in our board rooms, voting booths, border areas, and beyond.
I know that our renewed focus on civil rights has been of particular interest to many of you. I’m pleased to report that our Civil Rights Division has reaffirmed itself as the conscience of the Justice Department and as our nation’s finest civil rights enforcement agency. Of course, there is still work to be done. But our strong enforcement efforts are protecting the rights of disabled Americans, institutionalized persons, voters, veterans, workers, and students. And we’re ensuring that religious freedoms for all our citizens, Christians, Jews, Muslims, as well as education and job opportunities, are protected.
In this work, many of you – and other members of the judiciary – have stepped forward, providing critical guidance and expertise. I look forward to building on our conversations – this evening and in the days ahead – about how we can collaborate more effectively in achieving the goals we share.
By continuing to work together, I believe we can extend the traditions of service that first inspired the creation of this foundation and continue to define our country.
Once again, let me thank you for this opportunity to salute and support your work and to discuss the Justice Department’s activities, priorities, and most fundamental responsibilities: ensuring justice and opportunity for all. With your continued support, I’m certain that we can – and that we will – deliver on this promise.
I’m grateful for your partnership. And I look forward to the work we will continue, the future we will build, and the nation we will surely become.