“Choosing our leaders is among the most direct and tangible ways in which our citizens exercise their ownership over the law, and it is at the heart of our American democratic experiment,” Clinton told the audience of lawyers and guests. “We have found too many ways to divide and exclude people from their ownership of the law and protection under the law.”
She said the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder “struck at heart of Voting Rights Act” when it stripped out the formula requiring some states to get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice for changes to election laws.
“In the weeks since the ruling, we have seen as unseemly rush by previously covered jurisdictions to enact or enforce laws that will make it harder for millions of our fellow Americans to vote,” Clinton said.
For example, Texas moved forward on voter ID law that was previously invalidated by a federal court, Florida restarted a purge of voter rolls that will likely disproportionately affect minorities and North Carolina legislators pushed through a bill that “reads like a greatest hits of voter suppression,” she said.
These are all changes that used to require federal approval under the VRA. Clinton said that unless Congress takes action to replace the portions of the act that were struck down, “citizens will be disenfranchised, victimized by the law, instead of served by it, and that progress, that historical progress toward a more perfect union, will go backward instead of forward.”
In 2013 so far, more than 80 bills restricting voting rights have been introduced in 31 states, she said, describing a “sweeping effort” across our nation to obstruct voting, often in the name of addressing a “phantom epidemic of election fraud.”
She said these laws and the discrepancies in resources during elections still disproportionately affect Latinos, African-Americans and young voters.
“Now not every obstacle is related to race, but anyone who says that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in American elections must not be paying attention.” Clinton said, adding that this is why the VRA has played an important role for nearly half a century. The DOJ has used the law to block nearly 90 discriminatory changes in state and local election rules.
Clinton recommended a three-point plan for addressing these voting rights problems: increased DOJ enforcement, legislation from Congress and grassroots action by citizens and lawyers.
“The Supreme Court has shifted the burden back onto citizens facing discrimination and those lawyers willing to stand with them,” she said. “There is no group that I have more confidence in being able to rise and meet that challenge than the lawyers of America and particularly the American Bar Association.”
Clinton accepts ABA Medal
During the American Bar Association Annual Meeting, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton received the ABA Medal, the association’s highest honor, for her exceptionally distinguished service to the cause of American jurisprudence.
“I am so deeply grateful to you for this award, and I am humbled by those who have received it in the past, to join their company in some small measure, to continue the work that the ABA has championed,” Clinton said. “This honor from the American Bar Association means so much to me because I know the work that the ABA does.”
ABA President Laurel G. Bellows said if she challenged the audience to name three women who have advanced the rule of law and championed women’s rights, “Hillary Clinton’s name likely comes first. ‘Firsts’ are Secretary Clinton’s style.”
“We present Secretary Clinton with the ABA Medal because from her earliest days as a lawyer, she made the needs of the poor and defenseless a priority,” Bellows said. “We invite Secretary Clinton to this stage because of all that she has given to the public good in a lifetime in pursuit of social justice.”
Clinton began her legal career in 1969 at Yale Law School, where she took on cases of child abuse at the Yale-New Haven Hospital and volunteered at New Haven Legal Services. During this time, she is credited with playing an instrumental part in the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which requires schools to provide equal access to education for children with disabilities.
After law school, Clinton continued pro bono child advocacy and eventually became her law firm’s first female full partner. In 1977, she co-founded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. She was the first female chair of the board of directors of the Legal Services Corp., which she called “one of the great honors of my life.”
As a member of the ABA, Clinton also contributed to the advancement of women in the legal profession. In 1987, she became chair of the newly created ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. Under her leadership, the commission developed resources for employers and female lawyers on sexual harassment, parental leave and alternative work arrangements.
“I am proud that the ABA helped start the movement for gender equality in the legal profession and that it continues to be in the forefront today, with initiatives that ensure equal really does mean equal pay,” Clinton said.
Clinton is best known for her public service, serving as the secretary of state, the first female senator from New York and first lady. As a senator, she sponsored legislation to benefit the people of the nation, including the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would assure that men and women have the legal tools necessary to challenge pay discrimination.
“As secretary of state, I saw the contribution that the ABA makes around the world,” Clinton said, specifically citing the ABA Rule of Law Initiative’s efforts to improve governance, deliver justice and promote civil rights in more than 60 countries.
“The search for justice drives people to stand up against dictatorship, corruption and oppression,” she added. “Rule of the law is the most powerful tool in human history to deliver this justice.”