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Celebrating Champions of Justice

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Judge Holmes at podium, 2018

As we anticipate announcing our 2019 Scales of Justice honoree, we can’t help but reminisce about last year’s Annual Dinner and the words spoken by 2018 Scales of Justice Award recipient, the Honorable Sven Erik Holmes. In his acceptance speech, Judge Holmes, vice chairman and chief legal officer of KPMG, LLP, called for the legal community to continue its work to instill confidence and support in our system of justice, especially during times of public division and acrimony.

His remarks were as follows:

I have had the privilege of being associated with Equal Justice Works since 2005, when I left the bench to join KPMG. There is simply no organization more deeply devoted to fulfilling our nation’s promise of equal justice for all. This, of course, is an aspiration. But never has an aspiration been so critical.

As a country, we are experiencing an ever widening economic, social, and political divide. In such a time, it is important to focus on those principles of our democracy that bring us together—those principles that are fundamental to who we are.

For those of us who are lawyers, foremost among these principles—the principle we celebrate tonight—is “equal justice under law”—the four words that are emblazoned on the entrance to our Supreme Court. They express the belief that we are a society founded on the Rule of Law, not the rule of individuals.

Our democracy depends on the Rule of Law, which means that it depends on our Courts to be fair and impartial. As I instructed every jury at every trial over the course of my ten years on the bench “the law is no respecter of persons, you are to decide this case as if it was between parties of equal station in life and equal standing in the community.” 

This standard is as clear as it is simple. It is the promise of fair adjudication under the law that our democracy makes to every one of our citizens. 

But, as we all know, a large segment of our population—growing larger every day—never receives the benefit of this promise. The idea of any adjudication, let alone a fair adjudication, is a distant dream. That is the mission of Equal Justice Works—to help deliver on this promise of “equal justice for all” by providing the resources necessary to access our legal system.

Without access, there is no opportunity for justice—no opportunity to protect one’s rights and interests.

Judge Holmes on stage, 2018
Photo of the Honorable Sven Erik Holmes, KPMG, receiving the 2018 Scales of Justice Award at the Equal Justice Works Annual Dinner

Indeed, the fairest legal system in the world is of no social benefit if a significant portion of the population remains outside of its reach. This is what Equal Justice Works seeks to address. Yes, the goal is aspirational, but the turnout tonight is clear evidence that each of you shares this aspiration. I thank you for your commitment—and for your attendance tonight—although I think that just the opportunity to have dinner with David Stern should have been enough to cause you to attend.

So, our legal system requires both access and fairness. But real success requires more—much more—public confidence and support. If the public does not have confidence in our legal system, it cannot meet its responsibility to deliver justice—fairly and impartially, and for everyone. As a former professor of Constitutional Law, I can tell you that our framers understood this very well—and made it clear that such confidence required the active and ongoing respect and support of the other, more powerful, branches of government.

In our current toxic environment, I think often of this notion of respect for our legal system. How do we instill confidence in our system of justice during a time of public division and acrimony? What is required of us as a society to build and maintain support for the Rule of Law? 

My thoughts in this regard take me to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. United States District Judge Ronald Davies entered a Court Order to implement Brown v Board of Education, directing the integration of Central High School through the enrollment of nine black students. When then – Governor Faubus called up the National Guard to prevent compliance with the Court’s Order, President Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas Guard and dispatched troops from the 101st airborne. That night, President Eisenhower went on national television, stating:

“The very basis of our individual rights and freedoms rests upon the certainty that the President and the Executive Branch of Government will support and ensure the carrying out of the decisions of the Federal Courts even when necessary with all the means at the President’s command.” 

Let’s think about those words—“certainty” “ensure the carrying out” “all the means at the President’s command.” That this is the “very basis of our individual rights and freedoms.” This is what our legal system is responsible for delivering. This is what our Government is charged with protecting. And this is the mission of Equal Justice Works—to ensure that this precious and fundamental privilege is available to all of our citizens.

If the work of our legal system is that important—if it is so central to who we are as a democracy that every possible resource should be deployed to protect it, then most certainly it must be available to all.

That is the aspiration that brings us together here tonight. 

Thank you so much for the honor you have bestowed upon me and upon my colleagues at KPMG—and more importantly thank you for your generous support for Equal Justice Works.

Relive the night with our 2018 Annual Dinner Highlights.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow