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Head of Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law 2015 Honors Convocation and Commencement
Washington, DC
United States
Friday, May 15, 2015

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Dean [Katherine] Broderick; honored guests; faculty, staff and administrators; family members and friends; and – most importantly – members of the class of 2015: thank you for inviting me to share in this moment.  I am especially pleased to be able to celebrate with you today at a law school that has distinguished itself by its strong and unrelenting commitment to public service.  And I am deeply proud to join your family and friends in congratulating you on this remarkable occasion – as we mark the end of your legal training, and the beginning of your careers as servants, and stewards, of our nation’s justice system. 

Just think: as of today, you will never be cold-called again.  That alone is worth celebrating!  Those late nights of studying are behind you.  Torts, Evidence, Civ Pro…all behind you.  Your classes, your briefs, even your exams are behind you!  Well, except for that last big exam you’ll be taking in just a few weeks.  But for today, at least, even the bar exam can wait.  I hope each of you will take some time to savor this moment – this milestone.  You’ve earned it.  Then, take a deep breath, and look ahead to the next milestone.  The next great challenge.  It may come much sooner than you think.  After all, that’s what happened to me.

It’s been almost 15 years since I sat where you do today.  But I remember it clearly.  I remember feeling excited – and more than a little nervous – about what the future had in store.  I had just obtained a fellowship that allowed me to accept my first legal job – my dream job – as Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

I was the first lawyer in my family.  I had no real legal experience outside of my summer internships and law school clinics.  Yet it was only a few months after graduation that I found myself in a small town called Tulia, Texas, looking into a very troubling series of cases.

I’d heard about a drug sting that had culminated in the arrests on July 23, 1999, of 46 individuals in Tulia, Texas, 40 of whom were African American and the other six white or Hispanic with romantic relationships with African Americans.  At dawn on that day, 12 percent of Tulia’s African-American population – which totaled less than 400 – had been rounded up and thrown into jail on very low-level drug charges.  So I got on a plane.

What my colleagues and I found in Tulia was shocking: an entire community that had been targeted, brought down, on the word of a single corrupt and openly-biased narcotics officer.  His uncorroborated testimony had sent dozens of defendants to prison – for sentences ranging from 20, 40, 60 to 361 years – on charges that they had sold small amounts of cocaine.  That’s when the Legal Defense Fund got involved.

I remember going door to door, speaking with residents to gather information.  Over and over again, I introduced myself: “Vanita Gupta, from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.”  Over and over again, I was asked the same question: “Are you related to CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta?”  For the record, I’ve never met Dr. Gupta.  Though my husband tells me that, if you Google me, you will find that this remains one of the top four or five most-asked questions about me even today.  But in the fall of 2001, it was Dr. Gupta’s name and the reputation of the Legal Defense Fund that helped open doors for me in West Texas.

It took us two long years to bring justice to our clients.  But by 2003, we’d shown that this so-called drug sting – which had at first been hailed as a victory in the “War on Drugs” – had, in fact, been a grave injustice.  As a result of our work, Governor Rick Perry pardoned the Tulia defendants.  Four years after their ordeal began, they were finally free.  These exonerations were major victories for those who had suffered grievous harm at the hands of our criminal justice system.  And Tulia was an extraordinary experience – especially for someone about your age, fresh out of law school!

But in the context of the broader, systemic challenges we faced, Tulia felt like little more than a drop in the bucket.

After all, this was a time when the United States boasted the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world.  Our country comprised only five percent of the world’s population, but held roughly a quarter of its prisoners.  Even in the civil rights community, few people seemed to be paying attention.  Across the country, fewer still seemed to care about criminal justice reform.  Now, graduates, I don’t know exactly what drew you to law school.  Maybe you’ve seen injustice – or experienced it in your own lives.  Maybe you’re fascinated by the intricacies of our legal system, and want to help people, organizations, even companies navigate these waters.  Maybe you’ve watched way too much “Law & Order: SVU.”  Or maybe all of the above.  But whatever it was that brought you to UDC (University of the District of Columbia) in the first place, whatever sustained you through the long hours and late nights – my guess is that you’ve also been motivated, at least in part, by the very same belief that led me to West Texas almost 15 years ago:

The belief that every individual – and, especially, every lawyer – has the power to make a profound difference in the lives of those around them.  The power to make change – and to bring hope – to people who desperately need it.  The power to advance the pursuit of justice that has always bound this nation together.  Even the power to bend the arc of history itself – not merely by serving your clients, but by harnessing the law as a force for positive change.

Graduates, no matter what led you to this milestone – this new beginning… the “commencement” we celebrate today – each of you now holds this incredible power.  And my hope is that you will use your newfound skills to build an America that is as good – and as just – in practice as in promise.  No matter how you plan to make a living – or aspire to leave your mark – your future will be filled with big challenges.  With problems that may seem intractable, overwhelming, even hopeless.

But take it from me: nothing is ever hopeless.  Just 15 years ago, criminal justice reform was a lonely endeavor.  No one could have predicted that, in 2015, it would enjoy broad support across the political spectrum – from Hillary Clinton to Rand Paul.  To be sure, we have a lot of work to do.  But after years of sustained effort – from leaders throughout the bench and bar – our country is witnessing a sea change in the way we approach questions of crime and punishment.  The cause of criminal justice reform has found champions not only in President Obama and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but in two Attorneys General of the United States.  Under their leadership, since 2013, our nation’s Department of Justice has been striving to make comprehensive reform a reality.

Through our Smart on Crime initiative, we have reduced America’s reliance on overly punitive mandatory minimum drug sentences.  During this same time period, our country has also experienced the first drop in the federal prison population in more than 30 years – with no resulting increase in crime.  This is an extraordinary achievement in its own right.  And it is fueling the broader efforts of the department’s Civil Rights Division – which I have the honor to lead – as we confront criminal justice challenges holistically, attacking the problem from every angle.

We know that the path to prison starts shockingly early – in some cases, as early as preschool.  That’s why the Civil Rights Division is working to disrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline” by intervening wherever we find school discipline practices that are excessive – or disproportionately enforced against students of color.  Far too many students across the country are diverted from the path to success by unnecessarily harsh discipline policies and practices that exclude them from school for minor infractions.

We’re also increasing our support for state public defender systems.  We’re fighting to change local policies that result in prison time for those who are too poor to afford their fines.  And we have brought a record number of suits to address unjust conditions in America’s jails and prisons – including the use of solitary confinement on juveniles and those with mental illness.  Because we believe no one should have their rights abridged or denied – especially the most vulnerable among us.

Of course, lasting reform is about far more than getting rid of outdated policies and unwarranted disparities.  It also demands that we foster maximum trust – and transparency – in the criminal justice system at every level.  This means building a system that is fairer and more humane.

We’ve all heard the names.  Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice.  We know the tragic stories.  John Crawford. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray.  And we’ve witnessed the sobering public reactions, most recently in Baltimore, where I understand some of you served as legal observers and provided assistance to the Public Defender’s Office.

While the facts of many of these cases remain under investigation, we can all agree that – whatever the circumstances – the deaths of these young men in encounters with police have been tragic.  And they have reinforced the urgent need to address distrust, and bridge longstanding divisions, between America’s brave law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.

We saw this most acutely in Ferguson – where the Civil Rights Division’s eye-opening report exposed a connection between policing practices and broader issues with the criminal justice system.  UDC’s own Jonathan Smith helped lead this game-changing investigation, which shined a stark light on a community where law enforcement – and municipal court fines and fees – disproportionately targeted African Americans.

Although we do not know what we will uncover in future investigations – and will never prejudge any outcome – in the weeks ahead, we pledge to bring the same rigor, the same fairness, and the same impartiality to Baltimore, where the division has launched a civil investigation into the Baltimore Police Department.  Wherever this investigation may lead, our goal is to work with the community, public officials and law enforcement to help build a stronger, better Baltimore.  To restore trust where it has been badly eroded.  To promote healing – and address problems that are common to so many great cities across America.  Problems that I – like many of you – have seen firsthand.

In my travels throughout the country, I have spoken with the families of those who have been killed, and with young people who tell me they are losing faith in our justice system.  Young people who increasingly view law enforcement as preying upon, rather than protecting, their peers and loved ones.  And young people who feel as though the system itself is biased or corrupt.  Weighted against them.  Geared to target, and take down, communities of color.  Just like it did in Tulia.  Just like it has done countless times, in countless cities, across America.  The difference today, of course, is that meaningful dialogue is not 15 years away.  It’s unfolding as we speak. People throughout the country are engaged.  The American people are paying attention.  And their Justice Department is working harder than ever to make transformative change a reality.

Over the last six years, the Civil Rights Division has made policing a centerpiece of our broader efforts to improve the criminal justice system.  To start, we have prosecuted nearly 400 individual law enforcement officers for constitutional violations.  But we aim for broader systemic reform to build back trust where it has been broken.  Since 2009, we have opened 23 investigations into police departments in every corner of the nation.  Often, we are invited in to jurisdictions by city and law enforcement officials.  We are enforcing no fewer than 15 agreements with law enforcement agencies – including eight consent decrees – to correct unconstitutional policing practices.  These agreements reflect the input and engagement of city officials, police leaders, officers and unions, and of the community.  Transformation of police departments and their relationship to the communities they serve requires engagement of everyone who has a stake in the issue.

Now, I want to be absolutely clear: The overwhelming majority of America’s law enforcement personnel perform their duties with tremendous honor and integrity – often at great personal risk – each and every day.  Many are called upon to make split-second, life-or-death decisions on a regular basis.  Many recognize the need to rebuild trust with the communities they serve where it has eroded but also feel undervalued.  Most were driven to the police academy in the first place by a deeply personal commitment to public service, a desire to improve the lives of others and a determination to help strengthen their communities.

If any of that sounds familiar, it may be because these same qualities are what drove many of us to attend law school.  And this points to an important truth – one that I hope you will carry with you as you look beyond this campus…and look ahead to the opportunities now before us: if you take the time to listen – really listen – and understand why protestors take to the streets, why police officers risk their lives every day, you might be surprised to find that, while their perspectives may differ, people’s aspirations – and their values – tend to be very similar.

We all want safer streets.  We all want stronger communities.  We all believe in equal justice under law.   And we’re all entitled to certain “unalienable rights” – rights that my colleagues and I – and, now, all of you – must work hard every day to protect.

Whether you build a career in private practice or public service…Whether you hope to try cases, influence policy or even rule from the bench someday – each of you is joining our profession at an extraordinary moment – in a time of great need, and a time of great consequence.  Whatever you do, from this day forward – however you put your skills, your legal training and your new degree to work, I hope you will heed some simple advice:

First: never be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone – at times, way outside it.  If I had not gone door-to-door in Tulia, Texas, all those years ago, I might not be where I am today.  You must never let anything deter you from acting as an agent of change – especially when the odds are stacked against you.  The most meaningful work I have ever done has always taken me out of my comfort zone and challenged me in myriad ways.

Second: never hesitate to fall back on your training.  But also, trust your instincts.  Trust what you’ve learned here at UDC – in the classroom, and in your outstanding clinical programs.  If you do, you’ll find that you are far better prepared than you realize.  And this training will serve you well when the going gets tough.  Sometimes, though, your training is not enough, so trust your instincts too.  Use your good judgment to be strategic and thoughtful in your action.

Finally: never doubt that it is within your power – as leaders and as lawyers – to effect meaningful, even transformational change – no matter how impossible it may seem at the time.  It’s often tempting to think of history as “settled” – to talk about the “golden age” of civil rights in the past tense, or to think of those who made great things possible as giants, or seasoned statesmen, possessed of some singular, secret wisdom the rest of us cannot access.

The truth, of course, is that history is far from settled.  Those distant milestones are not so distant.  And almost all of these giants began their journeys at commencement ceremonies more or less like this one – when they, like you, were ambitious young graduates, about to step into an uncertain future.

Thurgood Marshall was barely 26 when he took on – and won – his first big case.  He was 32 when he secured his first Supreme Court victory.  Constance Baker Motley was in her 20s when she advised a young client named Martin Luther King Jr. as he sat in a Birmingham jail cell.  She wrote the complaint in Brown v. Board – the complaint that would end legal segregation – when she was not yet 30.

Thousands of lawyers, every day, across the country, make a difference in people’s lives.  They may not be on the front pages of The New York Times, but they are unsung heroes working to serve the public and to give equal justice and equal opportunity real meaning in people’s lives.  And nearly two centuries earlier – on this very date, May 15, in the year 1776 – a group of young lawmakers, some of them lawyers, and some not much older than you, voted to declare Virginia’s independence from Britain, urging the Continental Congress to follow suit.

Now, there were no women or people of color in the crowd that day.  But that audacious act – made possible by a group of nervous but determined young people – was one of the first among many that set the “great American experiment” in motion – and shaped the ideals that gave rise to our legal system, and guide our country, even today.  This afternoon, graduates, this great experiment, and these high ideals, pass to each of you.

I know that’s an intimidating thought.  But if you ever doubt your worthiness to bear this burden, think of that nervous young lawyer who got on a plane to Tulia, Texas, 15 years ago – determined to make a modest contribution – a drop in the bucket – at a time when criminal justice reform was unthinkable.  Look at how far we’ve come since then – thanks to the courage and commitment of people just like you!  Remember that your “golden age” is only just beginning!

And never forget your ultimate responsibility: to apply your hard-earned skills, and exercise your power, as a servant of the law – to keep fighting for the civil rights of all people.  Keep bending the arc of history.  And keep building a more perfect justice system, and a more perfect Union – one case, one client, one life at a time.

Congratulations, class of 2015.  I wish you the very best of luck.

Updated August 19, 2016