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Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch Delivers Keynote Address at the 2015 American Bar Association Annual Meeting


Chicago, IL
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, President [William] Hubbard, for those kind words – and for your outstanding leadership of the American Bar Association.  It is a pleasure – and a great honor – to be here with so many distinguished attorneys and champions of our profession – including former ABA President [Roberta Cooper] Ramo, whom I know is being justly honored for her extraordinary and trailblazing work.  I am delighted to join you all as we gather today to reflect on a year of impressive advances; to reconnect with colleagues, partners, and friends; and to recommit ourselves to the ongoing work of defending liberty, pursuing justice, and enabling greatness – in every direction, in every case, and in every community across the nation.

For well over a century, the American Bar Association has been at the forefront of that vital work, fighting to strengthen the legal profession, to enhance the administration of justice, and to ensure the rule of law.  This organization has quite literally set the standard for legal training and practice in this country, and – in a variety of senses – has helped to raise the bar.  You have worked to ensure that every American lawyer receives a high-quality legal education – complete with training in ethics, professionalism, and core legal competencies.  You have encouraged pro bono work and public service – two endeavors that have been central to my own career, and which are critical to advancing the fairness and effectiveness of our justice system.  And you have campaigned diligently for diversity within the legal profession, and for the elimination of bias and discrimination in our society – a longstanding effort that has helped lead this country toward greater inclusion, equality, and justice for all.

You have advanced the rule of law both at home and abroad, working to both commemorate our legal history as well as make real the protection of the law for so many.  It was just six short weeks ago that many of us were gathered in England, on a field called Runnymede, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  We stood on the field where barons confronted a king, next to the beautiful monument constructed by the ABA, representing the dreams of eight centuries ago made manifest reality, and carried forward by the ABA to all corners of the world.  Our legal system has become a source of inspiration to all seeking a framework for justice and equality – from war crimes tribunals seeking justice for those who have faced the greatest of betrayals to emerging nations that look to the ABA for guidance in crafting the laws they hope will set their own people free.

Your ideals, your mission, and your passion have attracted the largest membership of any voluntary professional organization in the country, and you should all be proud that, time and again, year after year, project after project, you have harnessed the dedication of that impressive following and channeled it forcefully toward improving our system of justice.  As lawyers in the United States, we act as stewards of the greatest legal system the world has ever known.  And it is important to remember that, in many ways, we only have that opportunity – and that responsibility – because the women and men of the ABA have helped to make it so. 

This gathering itself has served as a forum for new ideas, new innovation, and new steps forward.  Just two years ago, my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, came here to launch the Smart on Crime Initiative – a groundbreaking effort designed to reorient the way we approach criminal justice issues by diminishing the use of harsh mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenses; investing in rehabilitation and reentry programs that can reduce the likelihood of recidivism; and supporting vulnerable communities to prevent them from being caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place.  In the years since that announcement, with the support of the ABA, that initiative has been a resounding success and a rare point of bipartisan agreement.  And we continue to employ its principles as we take important steps on issues like sentencing reform and education for incarcerated individuals. 

Today, as legal professionals and public servants, we are tasked with doing even more – with building on the pioneering work for which this meeting is known, expanding on the achievements we have made together, and taking on the challenges and opportunities of the years to come.  After all, while it is clear that our nation and our society have made extraordinary progress over the past century, it is equally clear that our work is not yet complete.  Even as we speak, this country faces deep, varied, and evolving challenges – from threats against our homeland, to attacks on our information networks; and from tensions in our communities to modern-day slavery among our most vulnerable populations.  These are challenges that will require a concerted effort to combat and overcome.  And I want you to know that I and my colleagues at the Department of Justice are committed to taking action on a variety of fronts – both at home and abroad – and using every tool at our disposal to keep Americans safe, to protect the defenseless among us, and to fortify the essential bonds that define our neighborhoods and unite our communities. 

Safeguarding the security of our homeland is my highest priority, and must remain the primary mission of today’s Department of Justice.  As our global society becomes increasingly interconnected, those who wish to do us harm are gaining access to tools – including communications technologies – that are allowing them to recruit, to organize, and to attack as never before.  We have seen that pattern play out in the spread of ISIL, in the growing numbers of foreign fighters and individuals radicalized at home, and in recent cyberattacks – against private companies like Sony, and the federal government itself.  All of those developments serve to underscore the significant scale of the threats we face, as well as the persistent need for strong and smart defenses.

That’s why the Department of Justice is taking a series of proactive steps to neutralize threats as they emerge.  We are working tirelessly to discover and disrupt terror plots, and to apprehend would-be attackers – including more than two dozen people arrested and charged with supporting terrorist groups like ISIL in just the last three months.  We are partnering with local communities to identify the seeds of homegrown terrorism before they take root, while continuously adapting our strategies as threats materialize, morph, and metastasize.  And we are working through the FBI and with partners in the Intelligence Community to ensure that intelligence is shared appropriately; that threats are identified quickly; and that plots are dismantled permanently – all while protecting American citizens and American values.

We are paying particularly close attention to security threats in cyberspace, including those that take aim at American innovation and imperil the privacy of American consumers.  Alongside the U.S. Secret Service, FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers are investigating and prosecuting the most serious cyber intrusions, and we are constantly on guard against individuals, organized groups, and state actors who might attempt to steal sensitive data or harm our critical infrastructure.  Based on a strategic assessment of the threat landscape, we have restructured our operations to stay nimble as we combat new and shifting cyber-actors, including terrorists and nation-states.  Just last year, we created a new cybersecurity unit within our computer crime and intellectual property section to enhance collaboration on cybersecurity issues across government offices and with the private sector, to help potential targets of cyberattacks prevent data breaches, and to provide timely assistance and support when incidents do occur.  In order to extend and expand these vital public-private collaborations, I’ve been meeting with corporate executives and general counsels around the country to discuss cyber-threats, to share best practices, and to hear from experts in the field.  In recent weeks, I’ve convened cybersecurity roundtables in New Haven, Connecticut, and Houston, Texas, to emphasize the need for law enforcement officials and members of the business community to keep one another informed, to collaborate on comprehensive strategies, and to work together to ensure that Americans remain safe from exploitation and abuse.  Companies are telling us that they see and appreciate the results of our efforts.  I intend to continue that conversation, and these vital efforts, in the coming weeks and months.

Of course, even as we enhance the strength of our national defenses, we are also working to defend and empower the most vulnerable among us – and there are few more vulnerable than the men, women, and children who are trapped in the cruel confines of human trafficking.  Winning freedom and justice for the victims of this barbaric crime is a cause that has long been close to my heart.  As United States Attorney in the Eastern District of New York, I took action against abusers in over one hundred child exploitation and child pornography cases, and my office prosecuted brutal international human trafficking rings that sold victims as young as 14 into sexual slavery.  As proud as I am of the cases we did, I am probably most proud of our efforts, in conjunction with other governments, NGOs, and private attorneys devoting hundreds of hours of pro bono time to reunite children of trafficking victims with their mothers.  These were children who had been held in other countries as human collateral to force their mothers to continue to submit to the will of traffickers here in the U.S.  The representation, counsel and commitment of the private bar was invaluable in those efforts. 

As Attorney General, I am intensifying and expanding those efforts.  Just last month, I joined Secretary Tom Perez from the Department of Labor to announce that we would amplify a crucial interagency initiative – known as the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team Initiative, or ACTeam Initiative – that organizes and enhances the anti-trafficking work being done across the Departments of Justice, Labor, and Homeland Security.  Over the last two years, the Initiative operated in six pilot cities and achieved dramatic results – more than doubling the numbers of cases filed and defendants charged for human trafficking crimes.  We are aiming to build on that momentum and expand on that success by launching the second phase of the initiative in several new districts across the country.  And by prosecuting abuse, combating exploitation, and lifting up those who have been let down, left out, and left behind, we will continue to do our part to aid all those who are in desperate need of assistance, opportunity, and justice.

That work, that focus, and that attention must extend to every city, every town, and every neighborhood – and nowhere is the need for urgent assistance more clear than in communities riven by deeply-rooted discord between law enforcement officials and the people they serve and protect.  In recent months, a series of tragedies across the country has reminded us that breakdowns in these relationships can have devastating consequences, and has awakened this nation to longstanding issues that we have a civic responsibility to understand, and a moral obligation to address.  As someone who has spent a career in law enforcement, I have always had the greatest respect and admiration for devoted officers and agents who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect the communities we love and serve.  As the chief law enforcement officer of this great nation, I am honored to stand with them.  But I also recognize that, in such a diverse nation with such a complex racial history, we must do more to ensure that interactions between officers and communities of color are positive and productive – governed by support, and not suspicion.

I have been engaged in this work since the beginning of my tenure – and going forward, the Department of Justice intends to serve as a committed partner to every community working to identify and implement strategies that will advance public safety, strengthen relationships, and foster the enduring trust and respect they need to thrive.  Last September, we launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which is a wide-ranging new approach to training, policy development, and research geared toward advancing procedural justice, promoting racial reconciliation, and eliminating implicit bias.  Our Civil Rights Division is working with police departments around the country to ensure constitutional policing – in part by combating discrimination, ending excessive use of force, and promoting accountability systems – in order to help rebuild trust where it has eroded.  And in May, I launched a six-city community policing tour to highlight some of the most promising work that citizens and law enforcement are doing together to construct new foundations of trust, respect, and mutual understanding.  We chose places that had experienced difficult police – community interactions, or had even had the department Issue findings of a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing.  We were looking for communities that had moved through difficult times and developed a positive, albeit not necessarily perfect, community – police dynamic.  I have already spoken with law enforcement officers, civic leaders, and young people of all backgrounds in Cincinnati, Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama; and East Haven, Connecticut.  They told me how their collaboration has transformed their cities; they praised their police leadership and the work of the community; and they spoke with evident pride about the bonds of mutual support they had forged together.  I was particularly moved by the interactions I observed in Cincinnati, where police officers are assigned to work in the classrooms of some of the most challenged schools.  There, they work directly with third graders in their reading classrooms, forging bonds that will foster greater understanding for years to come.  While there, I asked the students how many of them would want to be a police officer – and every hand went up.  I asked them why – what made them want to be an officer?  They told me that police officers keep us safe.  They protect people who need protection.  They get the bad guys.  And then a quiet boy in the back of the classroom raised his hand and said, “Because they are the peacemakers.”  Cincinnati is now facing another challenge with a life lost, and our hope is that the relationships that have been built will produce an informed citizenry, a responsive police force, and an open and transparent process towards justice.  In the coming weeks, I will continue my tour in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; and Richmond, California, in order to further highlight these issues, broaden awareness, and help find the common ground that will carry us forward.

After all, these priorities are about much more than my actions as Attorney General, or the activities of the Department of Justice.  They are about who we are as a nation, and how we will progress as a people.  They are about whether we can make our country stronger while extending a hand to those who are struggling.  And they are about what we will do – today, and in the days ahead – to form the more perfect Union, to forge the more just society, and to build the more empowered national community that every American deserves.  From the earliest days of our Republic to the ongoing struggles of our time, that has been this nation’s shared mission and our people’s common pursuit.  And for the span of time that each of us is here to do our part – and to play our role in the still-unfolding story of this nation – that must be our goal.  Whether we are corporate attorneys protecting the engines of our economy, or lawyers in public service defending at-risk communities, we all have the ability to contribute.  As stewards of this country’s legal system; as guardians of the public trust; and as servants to all those whom the law protects and empowers, we have the means at this pivotal moment to examine the way forward and to help forge the path ahead.   And if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, as I believe that it does, then the law is the counterweight that keeps its course true.

I have no illusions that progress will be easy to achieve – in strengthening our nation or delivering help to its most vulnerable members.  These are difficult issues and ambitious goals.  But this country, like this extraordinary gathering, has never shied away from seemingly intractable challenges.  We have never turned our backs to those in danger or distress.  And we have never allowed the easy lure of indifference to dull our determination, to cloud our sense of purpose, or to slow our journey toward better days.  If you believe, as I do, that we must protect this country; if you feel, as I do, that we must lift up its citizens; if you trust, as I do, that we can heal its divisions; then I have no doubt that in the days ahead, through the strength of our convictions, the force of our actions, and the power of our just cause, we will make the difference that our citizens need.  We will bring about the better future that our communities deserve.  And together, we will extend the march of progress – toward the bright horizon.

Thank you once again for your fidelity to our sacred mission.  Thank you for your devotion to our highest values.  And thank you for your commitment to the work ahead.  I wish you all a very productive conference. 

Updated February 9, 2017