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U.S. Attorney Ortiz Delivers Commencement Address at New England Law Boston

Friday, May 24, 2013

Thank you, Chairman Foster. Good morning Dean O’Brien, distinguished faculty, trustees, proud parents and family, friends, and esteemed graduates of the Class of 2013! Congratulations!

I can’t tell you how delighted I am to be here celebrating this very special achievement with you. Make no mistake about it, what you have accomplished during your years at New England Law Boston is truly remarkable.

Before I begin I would like to thank Dean O’Brien for inviting me, once again, to attend New England Law Boston’s commencement ceremony and for affording me the privilege of addressing the graduates. Last year, I was flattered and touched to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree, and I must say it is wonderful to be back in the company of such driven and promising students.

On a personal note, I also want to recognize and give regards to a dear friend who is graduating today, Erin Fitzgerald, my executive assistant’s lovely niece; and two paralegals that have been working in my office while attending school: Merrilee O’Coin and Laura Vaughn. You finally did it! Congrats!

I would also like to take a moment to acknowledge the many family members and friends in the audience. As a parent myself, I know the tremendous sense of pride that you all feel today to see your own son or daughter dressed in cap and gown. And I hope you feel a shared sense of accomplishment because you paved their path with your unyielding love and support.

I often speak at events across the Commonwealth, but nothing quite compares to addressing a group of graduates – and law graduates nonetheless.

For me, the opportunity to speak to the future leaders of the legal community provides for the rare occasion to reflect on the path I’ve traveled and to evaluate the choices I’ve made that led me here today. While preparing my remarks, I reflected on my own law school graduation. I was full of anticipation about where my path in life would take me next.

The truth is that time and again, my path led to public service. I began my legal career working at the Department of Justice, where I met another young attorney, Eric Holder – and from what I gather, he’s done pretty well for himself there! It was the ‘80s. It was a time when some cities and towns across the country were transformed by heroin and crack; ruled by gangs and corrupt cops.

It was a time when crime rates were at an all-time high and a time when leaders in the government and communities across the country reevaluated the approach to policing and implemented policies and programs to reduce murder rates and smother the proliferation of illegal drugs. The campaign proved successful and restored peace to cities nationwide.

But those were the early years of my career. Today, we face a new set of priorities: immigration reform, gun control, criminal justice reform, and national security, just to name a few. Imagine what challenges you will confront during the course of your career…as you begin to determine what role you might play in formulating the future of justice.

As a young Hispanic girl growing up in the housing projects of Spanish Harlem, I could never have imagined that one day I would be delivering a commencement address. All I was sure of was that I yearned to be a lawyer.

I was one of those kids who knew what she wanted. All through adolescence, I was driven by a desire to “perform” in court and before a jury. Perhaps that stems from my early years watching Perry Mason on television, or from my earliest aspirations of being an actress – a dream that was quickly squashed when I came to terms with the fact that I really couldn’t act and I had a singing voice that left much to be desired!

Instead, I threw myself into my studies. I worked hard in high school to get into college and then twice as hard in college to get into law school. You see, I was the first one in my family to go to college, and the only one who went on to earn a graduate degree. My parents taught me that if I wanted to accomplish my dreams, I had to work hard and focus on education. I am sure many of you received that same message from your own support system.

It was with that in mind that I launched my career, first at DOJ in Washington, then as a prosecutor at the Middlesex DA’s Office before I joined a small firm as a defense attorney.

My life was certainly going according to plan. I was an eager young attorney honing my skills; I was a wife and a new mother to two young girls. I had reached a point in my life when I was on top of the world – I thought I had it all. But there are some things in life that you simply can’t predict. Never could I have prepared myself for my husband’s cancer diagnosis. Together we battled the horrific disease for eight years, until it took his life 13 years ago.

Suddenly, the once solid ground beneath me disappeared and I was left devastated, wondering which direction was up.

Slowly, I began to pick up the pieces. I was fortunate to be surrounded by family, friends and colleagues who believed in me. I learned – what was a difficult lesson to learn for a woman who prided herself on her independence and confidence – that it’s okay to ask for help. Over the years, I have come to believe that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

In navigating my personal and professional life, I encountered numerous ups and downs, but I never gave up on what I wanted to achieve, despite life’s hardships or setbacks. Four years ago, I was a prosecutor at the US Attorney’s Office and my once-little girls were blossoming into young, independent women who were ready to leave home and endeavor along their own path.

 

Although I was incredibly satisfied with the varied professional experiences I had enjoyed during my career, I craved another professional challenge. I knew that my desire to serve the public was still not fulfilled and so I sought the position of U.S. Attorney when it became available under the Obama Administration.

Over the course of my life, I’ve learned some very important principles, which I have turned to time and again as I’ve navigated through exciting times and difficult times – and especially now as United States Attorney.

As your commencement speaker, I believe it is my duty to impart some advice to you all today. While I’m still finding my own way, I can say with certainty that your life will follow paths planned and unplanned. During the course of your career, you will encounter numerous choices and challenges. I encourage you to take the path of most resistance – do what challenges you. That’s what you’ll learn the most from. And that’s the job that will give you the most satisfaction when you master it.

Don’t forget that as you go forth you are forging your career…building a reputation and a record of who you are and how you work. Make sure that over time, you don’t just have a job, but you build a career and a life of contribution that makes you proud.

As attorneys, you are endowed with certain responsibilities and each of you must be prepared to use the knowledge you’ve attained to aid your fellow citizens, to lead others faithfully, and – above all else – to serve justice.

I realize that this is a tremendous obligation. But I also believe that your presence here today proves you’re qualified and ready. In fact, I believe many of you have already begun serving those commitments by taking advantage of New England Law Boston’s strong community ties and commitment to public service.

I know several students sitting here today have already stepped in to tackle broad policy issues that emerge in our own backyard. One program, overseen by Professor Haynes through the Center for Law and Social Responsibility, trained 40 students in a novel area of immigration law, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This policy was signed into effect last fall and allows undocumented young people to apply for immigration relief. For the million-plus young people that have been in this country since they were children, this policy is life-changing. It means they can step out from the shadows, attend school and work without fear of deportation.

Forty students, including two graduates here today – Blaire Patrick and Erica Miller – partnered with attorneys from Greater Boston Legal Services and Catholic Charities to assist hundreds of applicants file the required forms. And since this is the Government we’re talking about, you can be sure there were a lot of forms! But this was more than just paperwork; it took an incredible amount of sensitivity to gain the trust of the young applicants who were taking a risk by making their presence known to the Department of Homeland Security.

Clearly, there is much more to be done to redress the issues embroiled in U.S. immigration policy. But this country was founded on the dreams of immigrants. Many of us are here today because our ancestors came to this land in search of a better life for themselves and future generations…for each of us.

Blaire and Erica have already contributed to a small part of the greater dialogue of immigration reform…and we look forward to hearing more from them in the future!

Another issue on the forefront is the epidemic of gun violence and the number of mass shootings that have impacted the safety of communities across the country.

We were shocked to watch the horrific footage of a public event with a Congresswoman in Tucson, a movie theatre in Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and an elementary school in Newtown. These atrocities are compounded by the countless gun-related tragedies that wreak havoc on our streets each and every day.

Our nation is in the midst of an epidemic of gun violence that steals the future of too many young people and destroys peace in our neighborhoods. Every life cut short by a bullet is an outrage…is…so unnecessary.

When affirming his determination to address gun violence, the President said, “If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence – if there’s just one life that can be saved – then we’ve got an obligation to try.”

And the majority of Americans agree with him. Ninety percent support universal background checks that make it harder for a dangerous person to buy a gun. Although the first attempt at bipartisan legislation to make our background check system stronger failed, we are going to keep doing everything in our power to protect citizens from gun violence because its impact on our nation has been far too severe.

This isn’t about party politics or influential lobbying groups. This is about a robust, national discourse in which citizens direct their elected leaders.

As you’ve learned here at New England Law Boston, few serious questions – of law or policy – can be satisfied with straightforward, one-size-fits-all solutions.

That lesson is the take-away for one of today’s graduates, Ben Jones, who helped to organize a criminal justice project involving criminal offender record information, or CORI.

The project, developed by Professor Siegel, assisted indigent persons in sealing their old criminal records that would otherwise prevent them from acquiring housing, employment, and insurance, for example, after serving their time in debt to society. More than 60 students participated in this effort to help applicants with CORI-related matters.

This project gave students invaluable experience working with clients, preparing affidavits, and conducting intake at court. Additionally, it provided students an opportunity to engage in critical components of the criminal justice system: helping individuals who had served their time to take advantage of their second chance to lead a lawful life. This is an aspect of the criminal justice system that often goes unrecognized and under-appreciated.

These students, as well as many others here, have shown their genuine commitment to public service.

I am proud to consider myself a public servant. Each day, I have the privilege of working alongside the most talented, devoted law enforcement officials in this country, and that was most evident during the weeks following the horrible events surrounding the Marathon bombing – a day that is typically reserved for celebration of our Patriotic heritage.

On that day, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. On that day, this city was shaken to its core.

But Boston did not falter – it stood tall, it stood…strong. First responders and regular citizens alike sprang into action in the moments following the first explosion; the tireless effort of all – from my colleagues leading the investigation to the agents and police on the streets combing through Watertown block-by-block – culminated in the apprehension of one living suspect. It was a night of celebration in the streets of Boston. And for myself and my colleagues, it was the first full night of relief after a nerve-wracking and challenging week.

Boston, knowing no other way, has rallied around the victims, has thanked the agents and officers that worked around the clock, and has come together stronger than ever before.

As I noted before, you never know what life will throw at you. Never could I have imagined – 20 years ago, five years ago, even three months ago – that I would confront such a horrific act in my city during the course of my legal career.

Soon, each of you will fan out across Massachusetts and around the country seeking to make your mark, blaze new trails and confront the unprecedented challenges of tomorrow. Remember – as you strive to achieve success, in whichever way you define it, don’t forget to give back to your community. As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

So let me be the first to officially welcome you into a profession that will provide countless opportunities for you to hone your skills, channel your passions, take some risks, and improve the world we share.

That is your mission, Class of 2013, and your responsibility. Based on the distinguished reputation of New England Law Boston, the commitment of your faculty and leadership, and the graduates that came before you, I have uncompromising faith that you’re going to make major contributions and I salute you.

Congratulations and thank you for allowing me to share this moment!

 

 

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