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Remarks Of The Honorable David J. Hickton United States Attorney For The Western District Of Pennsylvania For Academy Of Trial Lawyers Of Allegheny County
United States
Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thank you, Ira.

Good afternoon.

It is an honor to speak to you today. The Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County is well-recognized as one of the premier professional organizations at the Bar anywhere. Our Retreat and our programming are well known and respected around the Country. I was very grateful when I was asked to be Member, and I treasure this organization and all of its good work. But, to be asked to speak to you today on the occasion of the recognition of these fine and distinguished elders is a double honor. Today’s honorees include two of my former bosses and mentors, David Armstrong and Dave Fawcett; Clayton Sweeney, one of the people who inspired me to be a lawyer and my Dad’s fellow Champion Moot Court Partner; another one of my heroes, Roz Litman, one of the best lawyers I ever worked with anywhere; and many other of our honorees who were friends and colleagues of my Dad; Judge McLean, a lawyer’s lawyer and Judge’s Judge; the learned and distinguished scholar Judge Joe Weis; and the individual who has had the most sustained and positive impact over me, here by special invitation, my Mentor and friend, Judge Gus Diamond. I know I speak for everyone here when I say that each of you has contributed greatly our professional development, and you are luminaries in the great history of this legal community. I am deeply moved to be invited to speak on this occasion.

In January, the Department of Justice commemorated the 50th anniversary of the installation of Robert Kennedy as Attorney General. It was a splendid and emotional ceremony which included his family, friends and colleagues. Robert Kennedy served as Attorney General from 1961 to 1964, but his lasting impact is felt today. The building bears his name; the highest achievement awards are in his honor and his indescribable energy and spirit inspires our work today. Robert Kennedy’s enduring legacy is that he used the law to honestly confront our Nation’s problems and live up to its founding principles. He committed our democracy to freedom and justice–not just for some–but for all.

I thought you would be interested to know that, as part of the Robert Kennedy celebration in January, copies of the prepared text of his speeches were released. One of Robert Kennedy’s last public speeches as Attorney General was his speech in June 1964, shortly before he left office for his successful run for the Senate in New York, to the Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County. As you would expect, he gave a direct and passionate address decrying the power of the bail bondsman and the misuse of pretrial detention. Some of our honorees today probably remember that era.

I have given a copy of the speech to Joe if you would like to see it or, alternatively, I commend to you the Department of Justice website where you can view all of the program and speeches. You will enjoy it.

I want to share with you today some examples of how our work has changed and how it has remained the same since Robert Kennedy’s days as Attorney General.

In October, we reorganized the United States Attorney’s Office. We expanded the two sections for Violent Crime and White Collar to four sections: National Security; Civil Rights; Violent Crime and Fraud and Corruption. This reorganization adapted the office architecture to meet today’s challenges and aligned our resources appropriately to protect the public welfare.

National Security is the first responsibility of all of government, including the Department of Justice. Since 9-11, the protection of our citizens has become preeminent. The investigation and prosecution responsibilities for all of law enforcement are secondary to our first obligation to strive to disrupt and prevent attacks upon us. This is a sea change in the Department of Justice and for all of law enforcement.

You may ask what this means for the United States Attorneys around the country. The fact is, the threat we face has evolved since 9-11, and particularly aggressively in the last two years. My friend and colleague, U. S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, on her first day in office, had to contend with the “underwear bomber” who attempted to detonate a bomb on a plane with over 289 passengers as it was landing in Detroit. My friend and colleague, Dwight Holton, helped frustrate a plot to bomb a Christmas tree lighting in downtown Portland, Oregon. You have seen the press reports of terror plots which have been disrupted in Times Square in New York; Maryland; Virginia; Texas and other locations around the Country. These threats were successfully intercepted by a capable and dedicated National Security apparatus working in cooperation with the FBI and other law enforcement partners and the United States Attorney’s Offices in every state in our Nation.

Here in Pittsburgh, we have not been immune to the threat of terror. The public record reflects a case that involves a local young man whose internet postings express a desire to be a martyr and kill school children and other targets here in Western Pennsylvania. Evidence in support of his detention included his statement that he was going to “make Waco look like a tea party.” At the time of his arrest, he had 21 weapons including automatic weapons and 3,000 rounds of ammunition. He is presently charged with assault upon Federal officers and use of a firearm in the commission of a violent crime.

There have been other incidents here and around the Country. I do not intend to alarm you, but the threat is serious. Perhaps the best measure of our work in this area is how little you hear about it, but rest assured that this is true: the threats are real, widely dispersed and technologically sophisticated. It is also true that the people protecting our Country are skilled, committed and very effective. I have dedicated our Office to confronting threats to our national security and infrastructure. We have assigned five of our best lawyers in the group, and they brief me and the senior leadership in the United States Attorney’s Office weekly, and sometimes daily. We have coupled this work with our outstanding cyber group as cyber security and threats are integral to the National Security effort.

If I have been surprised by anything about my experiences so far, it is the urgency of the national security work, and the percentage of my time which is spent upon it. But, seeing the landscape as I now see it with the access to the information I now possess, I can assure you that the devotion of time and energy is necessary.

Unfortunately, the War on Terror has led to discrimination against Muslim Americans by some who have drawn the uninformed and incorrect conclusion that all Muslims are terrorists and that they and their religion are a threat to our Country. One would think that we would have learned from the unconscionable internment of Japanese- Americans during World War II.

Heroic Muslim Americans are fighting and dying in our armed services in Iraq and Afghanistan. Muslim Americans serve in important postions in our National, State and Local governments. Muslim Americans contribute to our communities.

This Country’s first principle of its birth is religious freedom, yet in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 until today, Muslim Americans are experiencing systematic civil rights deprivations.

The Bar, as a core leader in our Nation’s system of laws, must stand courageously against this outrage. No one–especially in the United States of America–should be discriminated against for their faith or any other reason.

Beyond our moral and legal obligation to ensure the promise of freedom for Muslim Americans, there is the reality that hostility toward our Muslim community creates fuel for radicalization and the development of home-grown terrorists. Stigmatizing Muslim communities makes it easier for Al Qaeda to radicalize Americans.

Some say our National Security interests cannot be assured if we do not treat Muslims with suspicion, and that, at this time, Civil Rights must yield to our safety. This is a false choice. The diversity of terrorist threats makes a single-minded focus on Muslim radicalization short-sighted and incomplete. Our focus should be on radicalized individuals, not entire communities.

There is an interesting and disturbing convergence between our National Security work and our Civil Rights work, and that is in the area of domestic terrorists.

We have seen in the last two years the rise of the White Supremacists, the Aryan Brotherhood and the resurgence of the Sovereign State Movement. In addition, anarchists and single-issue terrorists, as well as violent motorcycle gangs, have become more active and violent.

These groups are “equal opportunity bigots”–they hate minorities with the same fervor that they resent and attack authorities or your Government.

Approximately 250 police officers have been murdered nationwide over the last two years and many of these groups are proudly keeping a head count. One of the most egregious examples of this was here in April 2009 when a man whose internet rants reflected hatred towards Jews and African-Americans slaughtered three Pittsburgh police officers in cold blood.

In prior public appearances, I have appealed to reasonable Americans to help tamp down the fervor of our public debate. We cannot engage in vitriolic attacks upon Government and institutions without consequences.

I am not for one second suggesting that we limit Freedom of Speech or Debate. To the contrary, I urge all to join and enhance the debate. What I am saying is that hate speech against government and law enforcement has no place in our discourse and must be replaced with thoughtful, spirited debate premised upon our shared commitment to freedom and justice. The problem of threats against and danger to public officials is real and wide. It is a threat to our civility and our democracy.

Our office launched a Civil Rights initiative in December. We did this to help recapture the spirit of Robert Kennedy’s time, and in recognition of the sad fact that even in 2011, many Americans still do not enjoy the full promises of our democracy and endure civil rights violations and hate crimes every day. We have integrated our Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking work into the Civil Rights Section.

Since I have been in Office, we have charged and obtained guilty pleas in a cross-burning in this District. One would think that such a brazen expression of hate and bigotry would not be possible in 2011, but the sad fact is it is not an isolated or uncommon criminal act. We have indicted a Civil Rights case in connection with the beating of an inmate at the Allegheny County Jail. Many more criminal and civil investigations are underway.

Our office work is in conjunction with a revived Civil Rights Division at Main Justice. Tom Perez is the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. He is a brilliant and dynamic leader, and we are an enthusiastic partner.

One of the early benefits of an enhanced Civil Rights effort is that, in addition to blatant discrimination and hate, we have cast light on less known victims of discrimination. In addition to vigorous enforcement of all of the Civil Rights laws, including the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the Department of Justice has achieved success in ensuring access for the physically handicapped; brought cases to eliminate housing discrimination; enforced the Voting Rights Act initiatives against human trafficking; sought equal treatment under the law for Americans of all sexual orientations; prosecuted hate crimes against victims with mental disability; worked for educational access for homeless children; and we have championed the cause of fighting discrimination against Muslim Americans, just to name a few.

Earlier this month, I was honored to speak at a Summit to address the legal issues relating to educational opportunities for homeless children. The tragic plight of homeless children defies description and classification. The economic downturn of 2008 resulting from the mortgage and financial crisis has increased the displacement of families across all socioeconomic lines. Estimates are that there are 1.5 million homeless children per year; thousands in Pennsylvania. The average age of these children is seven years old, and their situation is heartbreaking. Their plight is not their fault, and their risk of lost opportunity and promise, let alone the risk of secondary violence and crime, can doom their future.

One of the many challenges these children face is where they get an education. When you realize that many school buses stop at extended stay hotels to pick up large numbers of displaced children whose families have lost their homes due to foreclosure, not to mention the homeless children or unaccompanied homeless youth of lesser means, you appreciate the issue of who is to educate them and how.

The leading case in the Country and in this area involved Carlynton School District where a challenge to 4 disenrolled displaced homeless children was filed before Judge McVerry. The case was settled and brought clarity to the area. Homeless children are protected by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and now, via a revised Basic Education Circular from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. It is the law that:

        Homeless children must be enrolled immediately;

  • Homeless children may be enrolled where:
    • Their adult caregiver resides;
    • Where they spend the greatest percentage of time; or
    • Where they have a substantial connection to:
      • shelter;
      • daily living activities; or
      • staying overnight on a regular basis.

The presence of Federal funds in local education and the Federal Stimulus give a clear basis for federal enforcement and we have pledged to protect the Civil Rights of homeless children.

We are committed to protecting the Civil Rights of Homeless Children and all groups who experience denial of their rights due to unlawful discrimination.

I appreciate and believe that being United States Attorney is the best job in the law. Attorney General Eric Holder told the audience at Duquesne in February what he affirmed to me privately: being United States Attorney was the best job he ever had.

Governor and former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh told me the same thing; something he also stated in his autobiography: the period he held the job I hold now was the happiest professional period of his life.

The platform and opportunity to serve from this Office is unparalleled. The leadership team we have formed and the staff generally are as good as it gets. The only question presented on the difficult and challenging decisions which hit my desk is “What is the right thing to do to best protect the public welfare and enhance the common good.” For any lawyer, it does get not much better than that.

My hope is that we do a good job serving the people, and that when I am done, the Office is a better place than when it was entrusted to me. I appreciate my membership in and the support of the Academy and hope that my work as United States Attorney will reflect well upon this great organization.

Thank you.

Updated July 14, 2015