Thank you, Vanita [Gupta], for that kind introduction - and for your extraordinary leadership of the Civil Rights Division. I so admire your confidence and clear vision for what the Division is and should be, and you’ve made the last two years some of the most impactful in the Division’s long history.
It’s a privilege to stand with you today, and it’s a pleasure to welcome all of you to the Department of Justice - not only today’s honorees, but also the many proud friends, family members and colleagues who have joined us to celebrate this special occasion. You know better than anyone what this job entails - both the passion it inspires and the dedication it demands. Your loved ones have accepted the formidable challenge of defending - and expanding - the civil and constitutional rights of everyone who calls this nation home. Thank you for sharing them with us as they pursue that vital mission and thank you for joining us today to help honor this outstanding group of attorneys, investigators and support staff.
Today’s awardees stood out in a crowded field of accomplishment in the Division this year - a level of accomplishment that is both wildly impressive and precisely what we have come to expect from the Civil Rights Division. I am incredibly proud of what this Division has achieved, not just in 2016, but from the earliest days of the Obama Administration. In fact, since this will be my last opportunity to speak to all of you as a group, if you’ll indulge me for a few minutes, I’d like to take a step back, and take stock of some of the many ways that this Division has used its inimitable strengths and boundless talent to write a new chapter in our nation’s history. This was already a storied Division. But these last eight years have added to that story in once-unimaginable ways.
When former Attorney General [Eric] Holder and former Assistant Attorney General [Tom] Perez arrived in 2009, they came ready to rev up the engine of the Civil Rights Division - and many of you were ready to be empowered, too. It took a serious commitment to restoring this Division’s traditional role as the conscience of the Justice Department. AG Holder liked to refer to the Civil Rights Division as the “crown jewel” of the Department, but you all know that that reputation didn’t come easily. It was hard-earned and painstakingly built by many of the people sitting in this hall today.
In 2009, it was impossible to imagine just how far we’d come, just how far you would take us, in eight short years. For example, at the dawn of this Administration, only two states – Massachusetts and Connecticut – allowed same-sex couples to marry. But in the years that followed, thanks to the courage and struggle of leaders both within and far beyond these walls, we saw that number climb rapidly to 50 – and 50 is where it will stay.
Building on that success, the Civil Rights Division took a groundbreaking stance this year in support of the fundamental equality and dignity of the transgender community. That’s exactly what the Civil Rights Division was created to do. And if you ask me, in the not-too-distant future, the nation will look back on our position and wonder how this issue could ever have been so fiercely contested.
Of course, adversity often comes with the job. On voting rights, we all remember the day in 2013 when the Division and the country suffered a major setback in the protection of the most fundamental of all rights in the Shelby County case. While the Supreme Court eliminated our most powerful tool to combat discrimination in our voting laws, true to the spirit of this Division, you absorbed the blow, sharpened our remaining tools and stood ready the next day to fight even harder to combat voter suppression. And with what feels like new assaults every day to the voting rights that are at the very foundation of our democracy, the potentially disenfranchised need you now more than ever.
In recent years, as the interaction between the police and the communities they serve has revealed a festering distrust that threatens the safety of those communities and our police officers and undermines confidence in law enforcement, the nation has looked to the Civil Rights Division for leadership born of experience, and guidance born of expertise. You have taken up the charge and while there is still much to be done, you have offered a blueprint for moving forward with mutual trust and respect.
And, when it comes to our nation’s criminal justice system, this Division has done vital work to ensure that we treat all our citizens with the fairness and compassion they deserve. Whether it’s scrutinizing bail practices, making our legal views known in local courts, or giving guidance on courthouse fines and fees, you are lighting a path forward for courts and law enforcement bodies nationwide and demonstrating how critical it is that we end the criminalization of poverty once and for all.
In these and so many other ways, this Division has made a powerful difference by fighting for the core rights and freedoms of every individual - no matter where they live, who they are, or how much money they make. These are not just theoretical concepts. In every corner of our country, from schools to mosques, in housing and lending markets, from border areas to boardrooms, you have made real - and lasting - differences in the lives of the people of our country.
Recounting these past victories, I know that many of you are thinking of the future, as well. With change on the horizon, you might be uncertain about whether these accomplishments will last. But I don’t believe that these achievements are as precarious as you might assume. The progress that you have forged is now woven into the fabric of our country. The Supreme Court has held that the right to marry the person you love is protected within the timeless words of our nation’s founding document. The injustices of poverty that you’ve brought to the nation’s attention will not be soon forgotten. Transgender Americans will always remember the recognition and validation they felt when the Department of Justice stood with them. And the citizens of this country will demand that every American’s right to vote is not something merely recited in our Constitution, but rather that this cornerstone of our democracy lives and breathes in every community.
One of the promises we make to young people who come to the Department - whether as interns, paralegals, assistants, or attorneys - is that, if they’re here long enough, they’ll get their chance to touch history. It’s no secret that, in the Civil Rights Division, that chance can come around more often than elsewhere. But what distinguishes all of you is not that you had a chance to touch history - but that, when you did, you grabbed hold of it with confidence and bent it, inexorably, toward justice.
Not long ago, I was drawn to visit the Lincoln Memorial again. I stood on that step where Dr. King stood for the March on Washington and looked out over the reflecting pool. And I thought about all of you. You are civil rights leaders in our day; you are trailblazers. You open minds and change hearts through your unshakable commitment to fairness and justice, to opportunity and equality. That commitment is contagious - and your voice as the protectors of our fundamental rights is every bit as potent now and in the years to come as it has been over the years that have passed.
Come January 20th, political appointees like Vanita and I will be private citizens. But the fact of the matter is that political appointees are just a tiny fraction of this legendary workforce. It’s you, the career men and women of the Department of Justice, who have always defined this Department - defined who we are and what we stand for. So even though I will no longer be a part of this Department, I, like millions of your fellow citizens, will be counting on you going forward - counting on you to continue to bend the arc toward justice. And I know that responsibility couldn’t be in better hands. I take heart in that. And you should take heart in yourselves.
I know that you have fought hard battles. But progress without resistance is just inevitability - simple and easy. But nothing you have achieved in these eight years was simple or easy. None of it was inevitable. It happened because you made it happen. Because you made it happen.
Thank you once again for allowing me to join you on this important occasion and for allowing me the privilege, for a moment in our nation’s history, of standing shoulder to shoulder with you. It’s an honor to count you as colleagues and friends.
At this time, I’ll turn things over to your truly fearless leader, Vanita Gupta.