Let me thank John O’Brien, President of the Illinois State Bar Association, [and Judge Spears, President of the Illinois Judges Association] for inviting me to join you today.
I’m honored to be here to celebrate Abraham Lincoln—one of our nation’s greatest presidents, but also, one of our state’s greatest lawyers—with other dedicated lawyers and judges.
As busy lawyers, too rarely do we have the opportunity to take time for reflect.
But today we have not just the opportunity, but the specific mission of reflecting on all that lawyers are doing—and can do—to answer the call to service and work for social justice.
Today’s program and President Obama’s Call to Service come at a critical time.
Our unemployment rate in Illinois is 11%—the highest rate since 1983;
More than two million families have already lost their homes to foreclosure since the start of this crisis.
Experts are projecting that over the next five years, foreclosures will range from 8 to 13 million.
Earlier this year, Congress voted to spend $700 billion to bail out Wall Street.
And even people who are lucky enough to have their jobs and remain in their homes this winter, have seen their investments and retirement savings decimated and their home values diminished.
So, these are unquestionably tough times for our nation, our state, and its families.
Therefore, the need for lawyers to serve as advocates for those who are struggling to survive—is great.
And it’s fitting that at this time, we look back at how Abraham Lincoln used his extraordinary skills and spoke out on the social justice issue of his time.
As we are a group of judges and lawyers, and not presidents, I want to talk about Lincoln’s advocacy before he became president.
In the mid 1850s, while Lincoln had served in the Illinois legislature and in Congress, he had spent the previous five years in private practice, not serving in elected office.
Then in the spring of 1854, Congress passed a law that reignited Lincoln’s passion—prompting him to speak out and ultimately again pursue public office.
Let me refresh your recollection of the great national political debate that erupted in 1854 to give you some historical context.
In May of 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, establishing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and specifically allowing the people of these territories to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery within their borders.
By doing so, Congress repealed the long-standing Missouri Compromise—the deal that had allowed slavery to continue in states that already had it, but prohibited slavery in new northern territories, including Kansas and Nebraska.
In the eyes of the anti-slavery forces, the decision to repeal the well-settled limits on the expansion of slavery was a decision to take our country one step closer to civil war.
In the summer and fall of 1854, Lincoln stumped around Illinois giving powerful speeches about his opposition to the extension of slavery.
In his speeches, Lincoln addressed the central issue confronting our nation:
Whether the nation should allow the spread of slavery.
Let me read some of his words:
…the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate.
I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.
I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.
As you can hear, Lincoln spoke eloquently against the extension of slavery—and for the need to reverse a course that he rightly believed would lead our nation to greater division and strife.
Lincoln demonstrated his amazing skill as an orator—and as a lawyer.
In these speeches—that I should mention were significantly longer than the one he is most known for at Gettysburg—he refuted, point-by-point, the pro-slavery arguments.
And he spoke to his audience the same way that he spoke to juries.
Lincoln grounded his arguments in moral principles;
He appealed to people’s “sense of justice.”
He reminded his audience of the principle enshrined in our country’s Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
With his words, Lincoln gave notice that he would continue to speak for justice—even if it meant running for public office again.
And he gave us—especially those of us who serve as lawyers—an example of the need to hold fast to our convictions and speak out for what is right.
Today, 155 years later, while America isn’t facing the identical challenges he fought, Lincoln still serves as a powerful reminder to us to stand for what’s right.
Lincoln’s legacy is a challenge to us to use our voices, and to use the law, to promote justice.
As we all know, the great moral battles in American history didn’t end with the civil war and the abolition of slavery.
It took the next 50 years to establish the right of women to vote.
And almost another 50 years after that to ensure that African Americans could exercise their right to vote.
And that African American children could attend the same schools as white children.
All of us have been involved in our generations’ civil rights movements, whether as witness, participant or beneficiary.
In my life, this manifested itself most dramatically when, after college, I volunteered to serve as a high school teacher in South Africa during Apartheid.
I taught black South African girls at a rural high school in part of the Zulu homeland.
Through my students and their families, I witnessed how the battle to secure Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness for black south Africans involved much death, detention, and devastation.
But I also saw and was inspired by the determination of these young South African women to get their education in order to change their world—for the better.
So, like many of you, I went to law school out of a desire to use the law to help people.
I believed that a law degree and the training of a lawyer could allow me to work more effectively to prevent injustice and improve peoples’ lives.
And over 20 years later, I not only believe that, I know it.
Serving as your Attorney General, I am fortunate to have the chance to be an advocate for people who need one.
And I feel obligated—especially during this unrelenting economic crisis—to take action.
Across Illinois, over 140,000 families have been hit with a foreclosure filing this year alone.
Over the last five years, we have witnessed a staggering increase in the number of families struggling to keep their homes in the face of lending scams and mortgage fraud by unscrupulous lenders.
According to the latest report which came out today, 16,422 new foreclosures were filed in Illinois last month.
That’s a 443% increase over November 2005, when just 3,023 foreclosures were filed in the state.
This financial fraud has not only devastated families and neighborhoods across our state, but it is also at the heart of our nation’s economic crisis.
To protect homeowners, we have investigated some of the largest mortgage lenders and uncovered evidence of wide-scale predatory lending, that resulted in borrowers being put into loans they didn’t understand and couldn’t afford.
So far, we have settled with Household Finance, Ameriquest, CountryWide …
… With the Countrywide settlement resulting in the creation of the nation’s first mandatory loan modification program for homeowners.
And we have a lawsuit pending against Wells Fargo for not just engaging in unfair and deceptive lending practices but also discriminatory lending.
Our Wells Fargo investigation was spurred on by a Chicago Reporter analysis revealing that an African American with an income over $100,000 was more likely to be put into a high cost loan than a white or Asian person earning less than $35,000.
Our investigation confirmed that Wells Fargo steered and targeted AAs and Latinos into subprime loans even when they had similar credit ratings as white borrowers.
So, our work on this case and a number of other critical cases and investigations continues.
Based on the economic havoc these treacherous loans have wrecked on the stability of families, their communities, our tax base, and the entire economy, President Obama announced sweeping reforms to our system of financial regulation this summer.
And as we speak, the U.S. House is voting on whether to implement a new consumer financial protection agency with the sole mission of protecting consumers.
Unbelievably, or maybe not, depending on your level of cynicism, the same companies that we as American taxpayers had to bail out because of their reckless practices, are now organized against the very creation of such an agency.
And if they can’t block its creation, they are determined to thwart state attorneys general from taking enforcement actions against national banks and to preempt state consumer fraud laws that go beyond federal legislation.
The result of this Congressional debate will have a direct impact on Illinois families.
How we respond to the financial crisis—and protect those who risk losing their homes and their financial future—is one of the civil rights challenges of our day.
Mortgage fraud is my highest consumer protection priority because I believe we have an obligation—to stand up to protect people who have been victimized and have nowhere else to turn.
And I know that I am not alone in this belief.
I want to thank Illinois legal aid organizations—and their pro bono volunteers—who are working tirelessly to make sure that families facing foreclosure have legal counsel.
This is just one of the ways lawyers are working at the forefront of our generation’s civil rights and social justice struggles.
Here today, we have many impressive examples of lawyers who are dedicated to improving the lives of those around them.
In a few minutes, you will hear from a panel of passionate lawyers doing extraordinary work on some of the other civil and human rights issue of our time.
Jody Raphael is working to free young women from the violent realities of prostitution by exposing the global human trafficking industry.
Camilla Taylor’s vigorous advocacy has made it possible for same-sex couples in the heartland to marry and have their families recognized by the law.
Terrence Hegarty has tirelessly advocated for the abolition of the death penalty.
And the Honorable George Leighton, the first recipient of ISBA Diversity Leadership Award, is the embodiment of Lincoln’s spirit.
Judge Leighton has dedicated his career—both in individual representation as well as his leadership from the bench—to guaranteeing all men and women are created equal, regardless of the color of their skin or the amount of money in their pocket.
Judge Leighton’s career affirms what President Obama said today in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize:
“Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.”
I hope that spending the afternoon reflecting on Lincoln inspires all of us to stand up for our convictions and for what is right.
I know it inspires me.
Thank you very much. ■