Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good afternoon. Thank you, Jeff, for those kind words.
I appreciate this opportunity to join you to celebrate the outstanding work of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.
I want to begin by welcoming the colleagues, family, and friends present today. The awards we distribute reflect not just the superb work of the recipients and their coworkers. The outstanding achievements of the Department of Justice also entail sacrifices by families and friends.
Theodore Roosevelt, a great champion of the environment, famously said, “We have … but one life…. It pays, no matter what comes after it, to try and do things, to accomplish things in this life, and not merely to have a soft and pleasant time.”
This division regularly receives high ratings for employee satisfaction. But your job satisfaction is not because the work is easy. If you were looking for a soft and pleasant time, there are lots of other places that you could go.
You are here because you want to accomplish things in this life. And your oath of office guides you in how to do that.
Most people are familiar with the first clause of our oath, the requirement to “support and defend the Constitution.” But some overlook the final clause: to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office.”
The first obligation is generic. It imposes a duty to pursue the national interest over any private interest. That applies equally to all government employees.
But the final clause is specific. Everybody recites the same words, but the meaning varies. In order to well and faithfully discharge the duties of “the” office, you need to understand the unique responsibilities of your office. What is the mandate of your agency; what is the mission of your component; and how do you add value?
You need to know what you stand for.
In the words of a classic country song by Aaron Tippin, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.”
The 115,000 employees of this Department know what they stand for. We share a commitment to promoting justice and maintaining the rule of law.
After the Constitutional Convention, a woman named Elizabeth Powel asked Benjamin Franklin what type of government the Founders created. Franklin replied with the words: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Mrs. Powel asked the question because it was not inevitable that our nation would be a democratic republic.
Franklin answered with the conditional phrase – “If you can keep it” -- because it was not inevitable that America would remain a democratic republic.
There are things you need to do, if you want to keep it.
Preserving the rule of law is what we do. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently put it this way: “No greater good can be done for the overall health and well-being of our Republic, than preserving and strengthening the impartial rule of law.”
President Trump’s 2018 Law Day proclamation sounded a similar theme: “we govern ourselves in accordance with the rule of law rather according to the whims of an elite few or the dictates of collective will. Through law, we have ensured liberty. We should not, and do not, take that success for granted.”
For those of us committed to the mission of the Department of Justice, that means first and foremost that we enforce the laws enacted by the Congress.
And it means that federal enforcement focuses on the pursuit of the truth, wherever the facts may lead.
It means that we do our utmost to respect and honor the constitutional protections afforded to our citizens.
In the Department of Justice, we bear special responsibilities. Private lawyers zealously advocate for their clients, whether right or wrong. Government lawyers are obligated to advocate for the truth. Only we are accountable for investigating and disclosing evidence of innocence. Only we are accountable for refraining from advocating arguments that we know to be wrong. That is because our duty is to the truth and not a particular outcome in any case. That is what the rule of law is all about.
When you exit this Great Hall and enter the courtyard beyond, if you look up, you will see a depiction of the scales of justice and a Latin inscription that reads, “Privilegium Obligatio.” It means that when you accept a privilege, you incur an obligation. Working here is a tremendous privilege.
Former Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner described our commensurate obligation this way: “The Department of Justice wields enormous power over people’s lives, much of it beyond judicial or political review. With power comes responsibility, moral if not legal, for its prudent and restrained exercise; and responsibility implies knowledge, experience and sound judgment, not just good faith.”
In a recent enforcement policy directive, Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeff Wood wrote that “ENRD is fortunate to have exceptional attorneys and professional staff who conduct their enforcement duties … with integrity, prudence, and diligence, all of which are crucial to ensuring the rule of law.”
In his first speech after taking office in 1940, Attorney General Robert Jackson spoke about the duty of government officials to serve the public interest. He said that “most … mistakes … [result from] failure to observe the fiduciary principle … the principle of trusteeship, without which our kind of society cannot long endure.”
Jackson explained that lawyers “who sit temporarily in the position of government counsel, are subject to [obligations] … that those outside the profession never” face. He contrasted the special duties of government lawyers with what he called “the volatile values of politics.”
Jackson understood that “[f]undamental things in our American way of life depend on … government lawyers.” He said that “lawyers must at times risk ourselves and our records to defend our legal processes from discredit, and to maintain a dispassionate, disinterested, and impartial enforcement of the law.”
Less than three years later, Jackson was a Justice of the Supreme Court, and World War II brought “dissension and lawlessness” to “much of the world.” In November 1942, Jackson discussed the role of lawyers in preserving liberty.
Jackson invoked a parable about three stonecutters asked to describe what they are doing. The first stonecutter focuses on how the job benefits him. He says, “I am earning a living.” The second narrowly describes his personal task: “I am cutting stone.” The third man has a very different perspective. His face lights up as he explains what the work means to others: “I am helping to build a cathedral.”
“[W]hether we are aware of it or not,” Jackson explained, lawyers “do more than earn [a] living; we do more than [litigate] [individual] cases. We are building the legal structure that will protect … human liberty,” for centuries to come.
His point is that you are always building a legacy, whether you realize it or not. You set an example for your colleagues, you establish a standard for your constituents, and you lay a foundation for your successors.
In my experiences working with this Division -- both my time in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and here at Main Justice -- I have been consistently impressed with the skill, integrity, and dedication of ENRD attorneys and staff.
The excellence of the Division’s work is reflected in the impressive results that you produce:
- In 2017, the Division achieved over $4.8 billion in civil and criminal fines, penalties, and costs recovered.
- You secured injunctive relief in the form of clean-up and actions to prevent future pollution estimated to be worth more than $18.7 billion.
- And you saved the United States more than $360 billion through your defensive and condemnation cases.
You secured important victories protecting our water, air, and land while working cooperatively with the states. Those include agreements by defendants to abate lead hazards in Indiana and Missouri, to restore wildlife habitat and water quality damaged by mercury pollution in New York, and to create a preserve in Wisconsin in an area polluted by industrial discharges.
You shoulder this country’s trust responsibilities to Native Americans by protecting the ability of tribes to promote economic development on their land, as well as their rights and resources.
You uphold the principle that justice includes respect for due process by observing the constitutional duty for just compensation as you support efforts to secure our borders and to acquire land for other public purposes.
When necessary, you use the sanction of criminal law. You successfully prosecuted criminals who traffic in protected wildlife, intentionally polluted our environment, and engaged in fraud.
I am grateful to your division for its faithful defense of the Administration’s priorities and initiatives. I commend you for your work protecting the public fisc while ensuring that anyone entitled to compensation receives it. And I congratulate you on your principled defense of agency decisions concerning our natural resources and wildlife.
Today, we honor employees whose exemplary work sets the standard for the Division. These award recipients demonstrate what excellence in public service can achieve. Our honorees include attorneys, supervisors, administrators; paralegals, legal assistants, and litigation support specialists; as well as contractors and colleagues from our agency partners who have worked closely with the division.
In conclusion, I want to quote Attorney General Robert Jackson once again. On April 1, 1940, he spoke from this very stage about the duties of prosecutors. He said, “A sensitiveness to fair play and sportsmanship is perhaps the best protection against the abuse of power, and 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 his task with humility.”
If you follow that advice, you will remain faithful to your oath. So seek the truth, serve law, and always stay humble and kind.