Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Columbia University School of Law Commencement
New York, NY
United States
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Friday, May 14, 2010

Dean Schizer, distinguished faculty, proud parents, family members, friends, and, most importantly, the Class of 2010. Thank you for inviting me to share in this moment and to join you in celebrating all of your accomplishments that have been, and most assuredly will be, achieved.

It is an honor to be back at Columbia Law School – although it’s something of a miracle that I ever got into this esteemed school in the first place. During my undergraduate years here in Morningside Heights, I was one of many students on this campus who felt strongly about, well, nearly everything. It was the 70’s. During my senior year, several of us took one of our concerns – that black students needed a designated space to gather on campus – to the Dean’s office. This being Columbia, we proceeded to occupy that office.

The target of that sit-in was Dean Henry Coleman. He heard us out, led us toward common ground and, eventually, to a compromise. But I’m not sure he was very happy about, shall we say, his forced captivity. In the ultimate display of chutzpah, however, I still asked Dean Coleman to recommend me for admission into this law school . And, lo and behold, he agreed. Only at Columbia, my friends. That’s one of many reasons why I love this university.

To return today, as our Nation’s Attorney General, to the place where I first studied the law, where I first dreamed of both serving the cause of justice and our country’s Department of Justice, is an extraordinary privilege. I am proud to be part of this distinguished institution, and it is a part of me. And I am grateful to be among the first to welcome such talented men and women into Columbia Law’s alumni family. And today, as always, I am glad to be home.

I was born a few subway stops away in the Bronx. I grew up in Queens. I attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and then spent seven exhilarating years at Columbia. It was across the street that I unraveled torts and studied, for what seemed like months, Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company. It was in the library that I discovered, and hated, contracts and grew fond of all-nighters. It was in the legendary Professor Telford Taylor’s criminal law class that my interest in combating crime and my commitment to the rule of law was inspired. And it was during law school summers that I had the opportunity to work for the NAACP on a few of the seminal discrimination cases of the day. This law school defined me in ways I am still realizing. And I’m confident that, in 35 years, you, too, will reflect and also realize that – in important and unexpected ways – this university has influenced your work and enriched your life.

Of course, the law school has changed since I was here. There are more international students and offerings; there are a dozen or so journals, instead of just two. And what’s this I hear about the construction of 200 luxury on-campus dorm rooms? When we were college students here, President Obama and I were lucky to have hot running water.

In the years since I received my diploma, I suppose I’ve changed, too. According to an American Prospect article published earlier this year, I “entered Columbia College in the fall of 1969, just in time to grow an Afro and participate in some heated student protests.” But something else has changed since 1976, when I was sitting in your seats, watching – as Dean Schizer mentioned – then-Attorney General Edward Levi receive an honorary degree. Since then, something more consequential than hair styles and protest strategies has evolved. And that something is the law. Over the past three and a half decades, our legal system has transformed in ways that, while easy to overlook or take for granted, are critically important.

Consider that when I first enrolled in this university, I could not vote – even though I was 18. I could, however, drink. Now, of course, the right to vote is afforded to every 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old. Or consider that, as recently when I became Attorney General last February, there was not a single line in nearly 225 years of U.S. Code that referred explicitly to gender identity. Today, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Act – which the President signed into law last October – does just that, finally protecting our Nation’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered citizens from vicious hate crimes.

Those are just two examples. In every field of the law, progress is being pursued – and made. This is our Nation’s oldest – and perhaps finest – tradition. Since America’s earliest days, young, dedicated lawyers have been using their knowledge and training to stand up for justice, finding that their education not only armed them with an ability to change the law, it also provided them with the power to change the world. Our best example of this may be our earliest example: the development of our Constitution. Today, it is worth remembering – and mentioning – that our Constitution was not created in a vacuum. It was, in fact, created to correct flaws in the legal framework that had been established by the Articles of Confederation.

Now, don’t worry. I’m not here to deliver a lecture on the law. I’d say you’ve had your fair share of those. Trust me, over the past year, I have, too. Instead, I’d like to offer you just the opposite: a slight but significant correction to the history many of us grew up studying – the story of how our Nation’s most important founding document, our Constitution, was established.

Two hundred and twenty three years ago today – May 14, 1787 – a motion was made in Annapolis, Md., calling every state delegate to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. That summer, as the story goes, the wise old men of the Republic gathered to draft what would, despite its imperfections, become the greatest legal document in the history of mankind. These framers rightly believed that the Constitution would provide a framework to extend their commitment to justice and opportunity for all. And, we have been taught, it was these elder statesmen who hoped it would serve as a shining example for all the world.

The only trouble with this story is that it’s not entirely accurate. Through some interesting research, two great historians – Stanley Elkins and Columbia’s own Eric McKitrick – have provided a fuller picture. They’ve revealed that, rather than being the product of venerable old sages, our Constitution was actually established at the insistence of, and through the advocacy of, young people – specifically, young lawyers.

Those who supported the Constitution, the Federalists, were on average at least a decade younger than their opposition. Several leading Federalists were under 35, and more than a few of them were in their twenties. At 44, the oldest Federalist was George Washington. And many of his contemporaries, like Columbia University alum, John Jay, hatched their ideas about a strong, democratic central government during their early years spent studying the law.

This history underscores a trend that we’ve seen, time and time again, in every chapter of America’s story. Young people, it seems to me, are uniquely qualified to re-imagine – and in doing so, to reinvigorate – the law and the world. Many of the great social advancements in our Nation’s history were, in no small part, the result of ideas that law school graduates envisioned and, over time, implemented. This is evident whether you’re looking at the eradication of slavery, the birth of the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment, or the passage of the 26th Amendment that ultimately enabled young people to participate – in record numbers – in the 2008 Presidential election. And it is especially true when you examine the conception and creation of our civil rights laws.

Several weeks ago, I traveled to Greensboro, N.C., to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins – a small student movement that quickly grew into a nationwide cause and, over time, inspired sweeping positive change. It motivated several Columbia law students to take part in Freedom Rides across Mississippi. It paved the way for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous March on Washington in 1963. And it helped to spread the philosophy of non-violent protest that advanced the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, and – I’d argue – eventually led to the election of our Nation’s first African-American President, as well as the appointment of its first African-American Attorney General. The exceptional commitment and capacity of young people, especially those willing to devote their legal skills and training to the struggle for equal justice and opportunity, always has been – and will continue to be – essential in moving our Nation forward.

Columbia Law School has a long tradition of graduating students unwilling to sit on the sidelines of history or miss an opportunity to work toward, and fight for, justice. Take Bella Abzug, class of 1947. After graduating from Columbia Law in her twenties – but before becoming one of the world’s leading feminists – she took on civil rights cases in the south. Or take Judge Robert Carter, class of 1941. The master’s thesis he developed here eventually defined the NAACP’s legal strategy in defending the right to freedom of association under the First Amendment. And I understand that one of our other famous alums, Theodore Roosevelt, was in such a rush to make an impact that, after his first year on campus, he dropped out to pursue a life of public service. Think about what he might have made of himself if he had stayed here like you all and graduated.

Many of you will follow in this great tradition. In fact, some of you already are. Brittani Kirkpatrick began a new law journal that explores the intersection of race and law, helping to chart the future of this still-burgeoning field. Justin Steil is fusing his background in urban planning with his legal education to help determine the future of land-use laws in a rapidly changing housing environment. And Janitra Supawong is helping to transform immigration and domestic violence law around the country.

There are countless more examples in this sea of blue before me: Jennifer Sokoler’s work on human rights; Sam Salganick’s on health care; Emma Neff’s on international reproductive rights. Each of these students, and many others, are harnessing the power of law to serve as an instrument of change.

Of course, you can do this in any number of ways. And you will, for this is a terrifically accomplished and diverse class. One in three among you is a minority student. You represent almost every state and more than 50 countries. Fifteen percent of you already have advanced degrees. Not only are you scholars, you are also soldiers, cancer survivors, artists, rock stars, religious leaders, entertainers, bankers, novelists, journalists and public servants. Any basketball players?

And, now, you are entering an uncertain world – one burdened by economic recession but showing signs of recovery. You are taking leave of this campus in an age of unprecedented challenge, an era of new threats, and a time of war. Yet, you must resist the temptation to feel as though you have been dealt a bad hand. You have not been dealt a bad hand. You have been given a rare opportunity. Consider the many examples throughout history of people your age, with exactly your training, who have improved the course of our country and strengthened the structures and rules that govern our society. And then consider how many of those leaders were trained in the law – quite a few.

I expect no less of each of you, whether you are heading to one of the 30 different states, or to one of the dozens of countries, represented by your post-grad jobs. Already, you have secured impressive government and public interest positions. Record numbers of you are pursuing clerkships. You will soon begin fellowships at nonprofits and NGOs that are in desperate need of your counsel. You will provide legal services to indigent populations. And you will, despite hard times, be entering the world’s top law firms.

Whatever your path, by any measure, you are already successful. But as much as you care about your own future success – and you should, for you have worked hard for it – I urge each of you to look for ways to serve others and to strengthen both our justice system and our commitment to the rule of law. Not only do you have the ability, you now have the credibility. And you also have the responsibility. A Columbia responsibility.

Of course, you may be told many times over the next few years to wait. You may be told that your vision for a better system needs ripening, or worse, a reality check. But I say: Trust your instincts. Believe in yourselves. Follow your own ideas – unless, of course, you’re one of the two graduates who are coming to work at the Department of Justice, where you’ll be taking your orders from me.

Whether you eventually lead movements, rule from the bench, return to the classroom, run for office, advise clients, or defend the accused, you are now ready to define our future. You are no longer just students of the law. You are now stewards of our Nation’s justice system. I believe the privilege of earning a Columbia Law degree brings with it an ongoing responsibility to use your gifts and training to improve this system. And I hope I can count on each of you to be partners in the pursuit and administration of justice – however you decide to serve.

You may chose to offer input into how our Nation is going to combat crime, protect our national security, strengthen our education system, safeguard the environment or ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to realize their dreams and fulfill their potential. But you can all go forward from this place, and from this moment, and give meaning to the ideals that animate our laws. You can also influence these laws in ways that call our country to aim higher, become better and do more for the most vulnerable among us.

But, before you do, I encourage you to look back, to think about the most exciting vision you’ve had for improving our laws – and our society – during your time here. Perhaps it’s something you’re working toward now. Or maybe it’s something you’ve never shared. Today, write it down. Imprint it on your brain. Talk about it with one of the family members who has supported you, or one of the friends you’ve come to rely on, or one of the professors you’ll never forget.

Then, keep this goal before you. At crossroads throughout your career and your life, ask yourself: Have I done it yet? And, just as so many other Columbia Law School graduates have, keep asking this question – even when your hair has turned gray, even after your Afro is long gone. Keep asking until your answer is, “Yes.”

This afternoon, as we celebrate all you’ve achieved, I am eager to see where each of you will lead our nation and our world. But wherever it is, know this: We’re counting on you. I’m counting on you. Your nation is counting on you. And, starting now, history is counting on you.

Good luck, and congratulations. I am proud of you all.