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Remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder at the Congressional Black Caucus Panel Discussion on Voting Rights


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Representative [Marcia] Fudge, for those kind words – and thank you all not only for that warm welcome, but for your steadfast friendship over the years – in times both good and bad; for your partnership on so many critical challenges we’ve faced together; and for your tireless efforts, today and every day, on behalf of those whom the law protects and empowers.

I have been privileged to work closely with many of you throughout my tenure as Attorney General – and I’m deeply proud of all that we have achieved.  Although my time at the Justice Department will draw to a close in the coming months – once my successor has been nominated and confirmed – I want you to know that my commitment to this work will never waver.  And in the meantime, there remains a great deal to be done.  I have no intention of letting up or slowing down.  I am honored to discuss our ongoing efforts with you once again today.  And I am proud, as ever, to stand with so many dedicated public servants, devoted advocates, and passionate leaders of our ongoing fight for equal rights and equal justice.

I would particularly like to thank the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation for organizing this important event – and for your decades of service in our struggle to secure the civil rights of everyone in this country.  Many years ago, during my first days here in Washington, I had the opportunity to attend a Congressional Black Caucus dinner with my aunt.  It was in some ways a foundational experience.  And in the years since then, I have been consistently inspired by your leadership over the years.  From education, to healthcare, to economic development – in our efforts to address racial disparities and reform criminal justice – you have done critical work to bring stakeholders together, to advocate for understanding, and to build a more just society.

As you know, this year marks the50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law to codify vital and long-overdue protections for all Americans.  In the decades since then, thanks to leaders like you, our nation has made remarkable, once-unimaginable progress in expanding economic opportunity, overturning legal discrimination, and expanding access to the ballot box for every eligible citizen.

All of this progress is laudable – and all of it is worth celebrating.  Yet there can be no question, as we gather today, that a great deal of work remains to be done: not only to defend those advances, but to expand on the progress of our forebears – and to continue the march they began.

Over the past six years, my colleagues and I have proven that – at every level of today’s Department of Justice – we are firmly committed to doing our part.  As part of the Smart on Crime initiative I launched just over a year ago, we have implemented important reforms and evidence-based strategies to make America’s criminal justice system both fairer and more effective.  Through the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which I announced earlier this month, we are striving to eliminate mistrust and build strong relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve – so we can defuse tensions that simmer just under the surface in too many cities and towns across the country, and that too often give rise to tragic events like those that captured our national attention last month in Ferguson, Missouri.

Beyond these efforts, as part of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, we are working to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color – and to ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.  In fact, I can announce today that we stand poised to take this work to a new level – and complement our data-driven approach under Smart on Crime and My Brother’s Keeper – by launching a new Smart on Juvenile Justice initiative, which will promote system-wide reform and bolster our efforts to end racial and ethnic disparities.

Under this brand-new initiative, three states – Georgia, Hawaii, and Kentucky – are working with the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project to provide diversion alternatives, community-based options, and other reforms aimed at reducing recidivism, decreasing correctional spending, and improving public safety – all while reducing the number of youth who come into contact with the criminal justice system.  To support this work, I’m pleased to announce that our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is awarding funding to the Crime and Justice Institute to provide training and technical assistance that will help these three states implement important policy changes.

In addition, we are awarding more than $1 million to the W. Haywood Burns Institute and the Development Services Group to reduce racial and ethnic disparities throughout the juvenile justice system.  And with a third set of Smart on Juvenile Justice awards, we are supporting comprehensive training for juvenile justice prosecutors – to acquaint them with the very latest information in forensic science, adolescent development, the neurosciences, and the prosecution of sexual assault cases.

These are promising new steps that will help us to advance our important – and in many cases life-changing – work in the juvenile justice arena.  These efforts go to the heart of who we are, and who we aspire to be, both as a nation and as a people.  But, as this group has rightly recognized over the years – and as you reaffirm today, by convening this critical forum – few of the challenges we face as a country are more fundamental, more complex, or more urgent than the need to preserve what President Johnson once called the “most basic” right to which every American is entitled: the right to vote.

As you’re discussing, through the unrelenting efforts of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division – under the leadership of Acting Assistant Attorney General Molly Moran, from whom you’ll be hearing this afternoon – my colleagues and I are acting aggressively to ensure that every American can exercise his or her right to participate in the democratic process, unencumbered by unnecessary restrictions that discourage, discriminate, or disenfranchise.  We’re advancing this fight – as we speak – along a number of fronts in communities across the nation.  This work has been a top priority since the moment I took office, nearly six years ago.  And these efforts show significant promise.

For instance – just this week – a federal appeals court in Cincinnati held that plaintiffs challenging the State of Ohio’s changes to its in-person early voting rules likely will be able to prove that those changes are unconstitutional.  This outcome was a milestone in the effort to protect voting rights even after the Supreme Court’s deeply misguided decision in Shelby County.  The Justice Department filed an amicus brief supporting those who brought this challenge under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  The appeals court’s ruling means that early voting can begin in Ohio on Tuesday, just as it had in prior election cycles.

Separately, in Wisconsin, we are carefully monitoring a challenge to that state’s voter identification law.  Although we were disappointed by the 7th Circuit’s action two weeks ago to lift the stay and allow the law to go into effect, we look forward to reviewing the court’s reasoning when it issues an opinion.

In Texas, we are currently awaiting a ruling on the department’s challenge to certain of the state’s redistricting maps, which were found by a federal court to be drawn with discriminatory intent.  And closing arguments concluded on Monday in our challenge to the Texas voter ID law – which our experts found would likely disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of eligible voters who lack the requisite identification.

Finally – just yesterday – in a case that’s pending in North Carolina, the 4th Circuit heard oral arguments in a challenge to that state’s voter ID measure.  We joined several groups last year in challenging that law and, although we did not prevail at the preliminary injunction phase, we believe that the evidence at trial next summer will show a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Of course, these are only the most recent – and most visible – actions that the Justice Department has taken to protect the voting rights of every eligible American.  Earlier this week, the department helped secure a victory in a case brought to ensure the voting rights of Alaska Natives, obtaining an order that effectively overhauls the entire election system to make sure all information is translated into Native languages; that every village in the region is covered; and that official election pamphlets will be translated in writing.  This landmark result is emblematic of our continuing, broad-based commitment to stand for expanded access and against disenfranchisement whenever and wherever this struggle plays out.  And as we look toward the future of this work – and seek new ways to advance this struggle – the Justice Department will remain determined to use every tool at our disposal to secure the rights of every citizen.

We will continue this fight until all Americans have equal access to the ballot box – no matter who they are or where they live.  We will continue our efforts until all Americans share the same opportunities for engagement in the democratic process.  And we will continue to look to groups like the CBC for leadership to advance the Voting Rights Act Amendments – and to continue your efforts until all Americans can make their voices heard in the halls of the federal government – including the more than 600,000 taxpayers who, like me, live in the District of Columbia and still have no voting representation in Congress.  It is long past time for every citizen to be afforded his or her full responsibilities and full rights.

In the months ahead – as we prepare for the upcoming elections – leaders from the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section will be coordinating with civil rights organizations, U.S. Attorneys, and others to dispatch federal election monitors to polling places around the country, just as we do routinely during every election season.  We will never waver, and never rest, in our determination to ensure the integrity and impartiality of this vital process.  And despite the myriad challenges that lie before us – and the long march that still stretches out ahead – I am confident that, with the leadership of passionate advocates in this room; with the lasting dedication of Justice Department officials across America; and with the advocacy and engagement of public servants like you – together, we will carry on the fight for equality.  We will build upon the progress that has led us to this moment.  And we will extend the legacy, and the proud record of achievement, that has been entrusted to each of us by generations that have gone before.

This is the imperative that has driven me over the last six years, and that will continue to shape our steps forward.  I want to thank you all, once again, for your partnership – and your leadership – of these important efforts.  And I look forward to everything we’ll achieve together in the months and years ahead – no matter where our paths may take us, or where this promising journey will lead.

Thank you all.

Updated August 18, 2015