Remarks as Delivered
Good afternoon. Thank you, Jenn, for that generous introduction. I am so happy to be here today with you, Damian, Noah and August.
If, as is customary, I were to recognize all the people who I admire in this room, we would be here for a very long time. However, Damian – whom the New York Times reports is known as being endearingly frugal – told me he’s trying to avoid paying for dinner for all of us. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll just skip that part.
But there is one person who I must mention. A person to whom we are particularly grateful: former U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss – who served until Damian’s confirmation, always keeping faith with the proud traditions of the Southern District. Thank you, Audrey.
In the process of preparing my remarks for today, I reached out to those who know Damian well, including his co-clerks from the year he worked for me at the D.C. Circuit. I wanted to see if they remembered him the same way I did.
The adjectival responses I got will not surprise anyone who knows Damian. Brilliant, diligent, public-spirited, kind, unassuming, humble. I think that’s pretty spot on – which is gonna make it very difficult for me to tease Damian today.
But I do think there is one further adjective worthy of special note, and that is wise.
One day at the courthouse, shortly after Damian and Jenn started dating, Damian mentioned that he wanted to take her out for Valentine’s Day, but he did not know what to do. See, he did ask for advice.
So, I recommended that they take a cooking class together, a plan that my own kids had liked very much. Damian liked the idea. So did Jenn. You’re welcome. (Laughter)
On Valentine’s Day, as we were leaving work, I offered to pick up Jenn and drop both of them at the cooking class, which was near our home.
“Judge,” Damian said diplomatically, “I think it would be better if I didn’t have a chaperone on this date.” And that is what I call wisdom. (Laughter)
However, I do have one doubt about Damian’s wisdom. And that is his willingness to take on this position.
As every former AUSA knows, being an AUSA is the best job we ever had – it has all the satisfaction of doing public service, all the excitement of investigation and trial, with none of the headaches of running the office.
Damian, are you sure about this?
Over eighty years ago, then-Attorney General Robert H. Jackson delivered a speech to the Second Annual Conference of United States Attorneys.
Jackson titled the speech, “The Federal Prosecutor.” It was his effort to define the duties and responsibilities that U.S. Attorneys have to the law and to their country.
At the end of his speech, Jackson said the following quote: “The citizen’s safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches the task with humility.”
Two things resonate with me when reading those words. The first is how much they echo the qualities that so many of us use to describe Damian Williams. The second is that those words have never been more relevant to the work of both the U.S. Attorneys and the entire Department of Justice.
So let me speak, for a moment, directly to the attorneys and staff of the Southern District.
When I addressed all of the department’s employees on my first day in office, I outlined three co-equal priorities that must guide our work: upholding the Rule of Law; keeping our country safe; and protecting civil rights. The U.S. Attorneys’ Offices play a central – a crucial – role in our ability to achieve all three.
The first priority – upholding the Rule of Law – requires that we adhere to the norms that have been part of the DNA of every DOJ employee since Edward Levi’s service as the first post-Watergate Attorney General.
Among other things, those norms require that we treat like cases alike. That there not be: one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans; one rule for friends and another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; one rule for the rich, another for the poor; or different rules, depending upon one's race or ethnicity.
Upholding those norms is my job – and your job – every day. That means we follow the facts and the law, and that is all. I know you know that.
The work you do to uphold the Rule of Law is directly tied to our second core priority: keeping our country safe from all threats, foreign and domestic. Every day, AUSAs and their partners in law enforcement investigate, deter and disrupt foreign-based threats – from nation states, terrorist groups and radicalized individuals – who seek to undermine our democratic and economic institutions, and to sow fear among our people.
And every day, AUSAs and their partners also investigate, deter and disrupt domestic-based threats – ranging from white collar crime to violent crime to domestic violent extremism. Those threats, if left unanswered, will also undermine our democratic and economic institutions, as well as our citizens’ support for the Rule of Law.
The first two core priorities that I have just mentioned are – again – closely tied to the third: protecting civil rights.
The Department of Justice was founded in the midst of Reconstruction following the Civil War, with its first principal task to secure the civil rights promised by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. That meant confronting the Ku Klux Klan, which used terror and violence to keep Black Americans from exercising their civil rights. The United States Attorneys played an important role in that effort, successfully prosecuting hundreds of Klansmen.
Today, the U.S. Attorneys' Offices remain critical to fulfilling the department’s historic purpose.
You protect voting rights and prosecute those who threaten election officials. You sue or prosecute government actors at all levels who violate the civil rights of our people. And you bring to justice those who commit hate crimes.
But it is not only what you do. It is how you do it. When you act in pursuit of our second priority – keeping our country safe – you always keep in mind your obligation to simultaneously guard the civil liberties of those you investigate and prosecute.
That is what sets American prosecutors apart from prosecutors in many other countries. Our obligation is to keep our country safe, and to do so in a way that honors the rule of law.
For those of you who don’t know, and I suppose there aren’t that many, events like this usually take place in a courtroom, or in some other ceremonial location that is special to the legal community.
But it was important to Damian that his investiture take place in a place that is special to – and shared with – the community the Southern District serves.
That is because Damian understands that the trust of a community is what a prosecutor must strive to earn every day. To successfully do the work we do – here in New York and across the country – we must earn and keep the trust of the people we serve.
And we do that by living up to the standards Attorney General Jackson outlined so many years ago: by balancing our zeal for justice with human kindness, by seeking the truth and only the truth, by serving the law and not factional purposes and by approaching our task with humility.
I am confident that those are the characteristics that will continue to guide Damian as U.S. Attorney.
The Southern District and the United States are lucky to have you.