Justice News

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Washington Council of Lawyers Annual Summer Pro Bono & Public Interest Forum
Washington, DC
United States
Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Thank you, Paul [Lee], for that kind introduction.  I also want to thank [Executive Director] Nancy Lopez – along with Paul and the entire board of directors – for their leadership of the Washington Council of Lawyers.  And I want to thank our gracious hosts at Hogan Lovells for hosting today’s lunch.

For more than four decades, the Washington Council of Lawyers has advanced the highest ideals of the legal profession.  You’ve advocated for human rights – from the cities of South Africa, to the courts of Tanzania, to the streets of Cuba.  You’ve helped make pro bono work more accessible for federal employees.  You’ve led research on legal services programs.  You’ve taught children about the impact of the law on their lives.  You’ve mentored public interest lawyers.  And you’ve recruited retired attorneys to participate in public service programs.

Today, as we recognize the success of these efforts, we also must acknowledge the challenges ahead, and together, find our charge – our shared mission – for the future.  In our country, we use the law and we turn to lawyers to translate our most cherished ideals – among them, equality, fairness, freedom and opportunity – into real protections for all people.  Of course, the law hasn’t always lived up to our highest ideals.  In fact, for centuries, through slavery and Jim Crow, the law codified discrimination and oppression.  The law treated women, people of color and the poor as second-class citizens, at best.  But the beauty of America’s story shows us that we, as a country and as a people, can change.  We can progress – imperfectly but unyieldingly.  We can – and we must – work to shape our country into a more just, more equal and more perfect union.

It’s my understanding that many of you are law students or newly-minted lawyers. You’re mastering the technicalities and complexities of legal language.  And with specialized credentials, you’re getting access to exclusive institutions like courts – institutions with the authority to arbitrate disputes, to vindicate rights and to ensure accountability.  With this power comes a professional responsibility – and also a moral imperative – to protect the most vulnerable among us, to safeguard justice and to apply the rules fairly.

I came to the Civil Rights Division in October 2014, weeks after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, set off nationwide protests and renewed a national conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.  And today, from policing, to criminal justice reform, to LGBTI rights, so many civil rights issues have entered the center stage and emerged at the forefront of our public dialogue.  As we look at these issues, in too many communities across our country, we can see a dramatic gap between what the law guarantees, on one hand, and what people experience, on the other.

We see this gap in indigent defense in communities around the country.  More than half a century ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court recognized the “obvious truth” that in our criminal justice system, a fair trial requires the appointment of counsel.  But today, too many poor defendants end up navigating the courts without meaningful access to counsel.  Too often, insufficient funding for indigent defense can lead to situations where even well-intentioned and capable public defenders serve, in effect, as attorneys in name only.  Through multiple court filings in recent years, the Justice Department has argued that if underfunded public defense systems leave lawyers without the resources and time to adequately represent their clients, these structural limitations violate the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.  And though there isn’t a civil right to counsel, we all know how much of a difference it makes having a lawyer in a landlord-tenant matter, a public benefits appeal or a foreclosure case.  This administration remains committed to ensuring access to justice and opportunity for all.

We see this gap in our elections – as too many voters face too many hurdles to engaging in the democratic process.  The right of all eligible voters to cast a ballot free from unlawful burdens and interference forms the bedrock of our democracy.  Even after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision dealt a powerful blow to a significant part of the Voting Rights Act, we continue to use every tool that remains at our disposal to protect eligible voters wherever and whenever we can.

We also see this gap in the criminalization of poverty.  More than three decades ago, in Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court made clear that our Constitution prohibits “punishing a person for his [or her] poverty.”  But – as we found through our investigation into the Ferguson Police Department last year – too many poor men and women still face excessive fines and fees that end up trapping them in cycles of poverty and putting them at risk of incarceration.  The problem extends well beyond Ferguson to communities around the country.  To address this challenge, the Justice Department recently issued a dear colleague letter to state and local judges to assist with reform of unlawful, unfair and counterproductive fine and fee practices.

In another area, we see this gap in discrimination that targets the LGBTI community.  Even after the Supreme Court’s landmark gay marriage decision last year in Obergefell v. Hodges that guaranteed all people “equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” we see new efforts to deny LGBTI individuals the respect they deserve and the protection our laws guarantee.  And let me add this – efforts like House Bill 2 (H.B. 2) in North Carolina not only violate the laws that govern our nation, but also the values that define us as a people.  The Justice Department recently sued the state of North Carolina to challenge the provision in H.B. 2 that prevents transgender individuals from using restrooms and changing facilities consistent with their gender identity.  As I said the day we announced the lawsuit, calling H.B. 2 a “bathroom bill” trivializes what this is really about.  H.B. 2 translates into discrimination in the real world.  Also last month, along with the Department of Education – after receiving inquiries from many school districts, colleges and universities – we released guidance to help provide educators the information they need to ensure that all students – including transgender students – can attend school in an environment free from sex-based discrimination.

We also see this gap in the mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.  And the Justice Department has made this issue a top priority.  As cities around the country – including in Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago – struggle with these issues around policing – the use of force, racial justice and officer and public safety – we see a critical opportunity to engage in tough, robust and complex conversations to drive real reform.  And the Civil Rights Division continues to lead thorough, fact-driven investigations and develop consent decrees that hold the potential to serve as national models and blueprints for constitutional, effective and accountable community policing in the 21st century.

Of course, in all of these areas, and so many others, the Department of Justice can’t close these gaps, address these issues and solve these problems on our own.  We rely on collaboration and partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders, including advocates, community members and private attorneys.  In a small town called Tulia, Texas, I learned this lesson about collaboration and public interest partnerships firsthand – fresh out of law school as a 26-year-old newly minted lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  In Tulia, the false testimony of a single police officer with a troubled history in law enforcement had sent dozens of African-American defendants to prison on low-level drug charges, with sentences ranging from 20 to 361 years.  The day after the arrests, the local paper ran a headline, “Tulia’s Streets Cleared of Garbage.”  Eventually, I assembled a team that included pro bono lawyers from some of the top firms.  And together, with a team of full-time public interest and pro bono law firm lawyers, we tried to leave no stone unturned.  Two years later, in 2003, Governor Rick Perry pardoned my clients, finally setting them free.

At the age of 26, I got the lesson of a lifetime about the profound power of – and real joy in – public interest legal work.  Even on the hardest days – even when it feels, at times, like fighting uphill battles and navigating upstream currents – I never question why I do this work.  Now, I don’t know what each of you aspires to or dreams about doing in your legal career.  But if you made it to this event today – I bet you have some real interest, some genuine passion for using your law degree to serve the public good.  Maybe you’ll choose to immerse yourself in your firm’s pro bono practice.  Maybe you dream about working as a lawyer for the Department of Justice.  And maybe you’ll find your summer internship in a public interest legal organization helps shape the early stages of your career.  Don’t worry about not having a long-term career plan – I didn’t.  I didn’t plot my career – I took jobs where I thought the work was meaningful and impactful and where I admired my colleagues.

But wherever you start your career – and wherever it takes you in the years ahead – I hope you use the privilege of your law degree to advance opportunity, to safeguard justice and to relieve the plight of some of the most marginalized communities and most vulnerable individuals in our society.  And I hope you cherish the chance to lead with courage.  Because the gaps and problems I talked about earlier – they won’t get solved on their own.  Real change will only come from people with the capacity to imagine a brighter future and the ambition to make it a reality – people like you and your peers.  People like the men and women who founded the Washington Council of Lawyers, who worked to strengthen it over the years, and who – through this organization – used the law to bring our country closer to its most cherished ideals: equality, justice and opportunity for all.

Seeing all of you here today – interns, associates, law clerks, public interest lawyers and law firm partners – gives me great optimism that you will use the law to make our country’s cherished ideals a tangible reality.  I thank you for the privilege to join you today.  And with great anticipation, I look forward to seeing the course each of you will chart and everything you will achieve in the days to come.  We’re counting on you.  Thank you very much.

Civil Rights
Updated August 19, 2016