December 10, 2022

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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Recipient of the 2022 Honorable Charles R. Richey Equal Justice Award, Delivers Remarks at GW Law

19 min read

Remarks as Prepared

Thank you, Professor Saltzburg, for that warm introduction. I also want to thank President Mark Wrighton, Associate Dean Morrison, the George Washington (GW) University School of Law and the GW University Community for inviting me here today. I am delighted to have the chance to sit down with my friend and your Dean, Dayna Matthew.

I am deeply honored to speak at this event that celebrates Judge Richey’s commitment to civil liberties, open government and equal justice under the law.

The Department of Justice is the one agency in the federal government that bears the name of a value. By virtue of that name — that value of justice — the department has a unique responsibility to protect civil rights and ensure equal justice for all. Indeed, the department was created in the aftermath of the Civil War, and its very first charge was securing the rights promised by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments at a time when the Ku Klux Klan engaged in a campaign of violence and lynchings of Black Americans to prevent them from voting.

The Attorney General has made clear that protecting civil rights, along with keeping our country safe and defending the rule of law, remains a core priority for the Justice Department. The department, through the Civil Rights Division, vigorously enforces federal civil rights laws. However, the Attorney General has emphasized that the responsibility to safeguard civil rights is not siloed within the Civil Rights Division but is a shared responsibility across the entire department. We advance civil rights through our efforts to protect the environment, preserve constitutional rights, strengthen the rule of law and defend the Administration’s priorities. We do it through promoting economic justice, ensuring market competition and expanding access to justice. We do it through building safe communities, supporting and funding our law enforcement partners engaged in constitutional policing and other best practices, and making our criminal justice system fair and just for all.

The department safeguards fundamental rights and seeks to expand equity to historically underserved communities. We bring civil rights cases that protect fair housing, disability rights and equal education and employment. The department secured convictions against the former officer who murdered George Floyd and the three other former officers who stood by and failed to intervene. The department has also filed lawsuits challenging a rash of state laws that infringe on the right to vote.

And we vigorously combat hate crimes – as demonstrated in the federal hate crimes prosecution and convictions of the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. We deploy all of our tools – including prosecutions, programs to provide victim-centered services and grants to support community-based responses to hate – to make sure that people can live free from exploitation and violence regardless of their race or ethnicity, their religion, their disability, or how they identify or who they love.

The shared responsibility to strive for equal justice under law is manifest throughout the department. We have strengthened environmental justice enforcement to ensure that health and environmental harms do not unduly fall on already overburdened minority and underserved communities.

The department, through the Civil Division, brings lawsuits to protect constitutional rights and to defend this Administration’s priorities. For example, last September, the department filed a lawsuit challenging a Texas law that effectively bans most abortions in the state and that sought to evade judicial review through an unprecedented enforcement scheme. Through this and other cases, the department fulfills its responsibility to uphold the rule of law and seeks to prevent attempts to deprive individuals of their constitutional rights.

The department’s civil rights mission also includes expanding access to justice for all. We can’t have equal justice under the law without equal access to justice. The department has re-established the Office for Access to Justice, and we will appoint a Language Access Coordinator to help ensure that language does not become a barrier to equal access to courts and other public resources.

We have also sought to expand access to legal services and pro bono attorneys and professionals for those who can’t afford them, including during the eviction crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Last June, I sent a letter to state courts encouraging them to immediately establish eviction diversion programs. GW is one of 99 law schools that have responded to the Attorney General’s Call to Action to the Legal Profession, which asked lawyers and law students to take immediate steps to address the housing and eviction crisis. GW students have, in turn, helped protect and advocate for many Washington, D.C. residents in danger of losing their homes.

Another cornerstone of our civil rights work is promoting economic justice. We do this by enforcing traditional civil rights laws, such as ensuring equal employment and combatting discriminatory lending and redlining practices.

But we do this in many other ways too. The department has sought to protect victims’ rights in the bankruptcy process and is working to help make the bankruptcy system more fair for student borrowers. And the work of the Antitrust Division is, at its core, about making sure that the economy works fairly for everyone. Antitrust may seem like a hyper-technical area of law, but the principles that animate antitrust enforcement – fair competition and preventing the abuse of market power – ultimately result in people getting higher quality products, earning fair wages, and paying fair market prices for essentials such as health insurance and food to put on the table for their families.

Protecting communities from violent crime is a top priority for the department, and we seek to build safe communities for all. Violent crime, especially gun violence, has devastating effects on victims, their families, and their communities, and impacts Black youth, men and women and other communities of color at significantly disproportionate rates. The department has dedicated substantial resources to reducing gun violence and to supporting state and local partners as they investigate and prosecute crime. But experience and research have demonstrated that enforcement alone is not enough. The department’s grant-making components are focused on supporting evidence-based programs that can help disrupt violence and strengthen communities, such as community-based violence intervention programs that establish relationships among local community leaders, service providers and people at the center of gun violence.

We also know that building safe communities requires building trust and legitimacy between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Such trust and legitimacy are not only necessary for public safety, they also honor this nation’s core values of fairness and dignity for all. Last summer, the Deputy Attorney General announced several new policies that govern the department’s law enforcement components, including limiting the use of chokeholds to deadly force situations; requiring that no-knock warrants generally be used only when knocking and announcing presents a threat of physical harm; and increasing the use of body-worn cameras as a tool to increase transparency and accountability.

And just yesterday, in a case related to the public demonstrations in June 2020 in Lafayette Park, the department reached a settlement in which the United States Park Police and the Secret Service agreed to update certain policies, including requiring officers to wear fully visible badges and nameplates; implementing guidelines concerning the use of non-lethal force, including de-escalation tactics; and adopting procedures to safely disperse crowds. These changes to agency policies strengthen the government’s unwavering commitment to protecting and respecting constitutionally protected rights.

We also seek to help build trust in and support for our state and local law enforcement partners by investing in community policing and other best practices. The department just launched a new collaborative reform initiative, which will provide assistance and expert services to our law enforcement partners that request DOJ support. And, where constitutional violations occur, we hold departments and officers accountable.

Finally, the department is fully committed to enhancing public safety and equity within the criminal justice system. We use grants to support evidence-based programs to provide treatment, not incarceration, to those with mental and behavioral health or substance use disorders. We seek to provide meaningful opportunities for reentry and access to medication assisted treatment within jails and at the point of re-entry. We can help save lives, improve public health, protect public safety and ensure that people have the tools they need to successfully reintegrate into society.

These are just a few examples of how the Justice Department uses every lever we have to protect civil rights and promote justice across the department’s work.

Thank you, and I look forward to continuing this conversation with Dean Matthew and to meeting you all at the reception in just a bit.

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