Department of Justice Seal

Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft

Commencement Address for The University of Missouri
Columbia School of Law
Jesse Auditorium
May 18, 2002

     Dean Kenneth Dean; trustees; members of the administration, faculty and staff; distinguished guests; parents and families of the graduates; members of the class of 2002:

     I am grateful to Kenneth Dean for his kind invitation to deliver this year’s commencement address at the University of Missouri Columbia School of Law. It is a privilege and an honor to address this year’s graduating class.

     It is customary, on occasions such as this, for the speaker to congratulate the graduates on what they have achieved -- and let me be the first to do so. But let me also remind you, graduates, that your achievement is not yours alone.

     You share this day with the parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters who have supported you; the faculty and staff who have guided you; and, last but not least, the friend who got you through Civil Procedure.

     It is a great pleasure for me to be here, not only because you have honored me with the opportunity to speak to you today, but because two of my most valued colleagues are associated with this institution. My deputy chief of staff, David Israelite, is a graduate of the Columbia School of Law, and one of your professors, Carl Esbeck, is the head of the Department of Justice’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives. I am grateful to this institution for the leadership they provide for America.

     I have been privileged to serve the American people and the President of the United States at an extraordinary moment in history. We live in an era in which the values we hold as Americans - the values of freedom, equality, and justice - are under assault in the world. And in the midst of this assault, we have learned a great lesson: Our values are neither self-executing nor self-sustaining. They must be defended, not just with military might, but with deeper devotion.

     Today, as you embark on careers in the law, America is a nation called to a deeper understanding of justice than that which is conveyed in our popular culture and even in many of our academic institutions. For too many Americans, justice is defined by today’s high profile, high drama court battles. Increasingly, the popular image of justice is that of a battle played out in an arena, a clash of modern day gladiators in which wealth buys access, might makes right, and victory is measured by the magnitude of the recovery rather than the realization of the truth.

     As graduates of the University of Missouri, you have been schooled in a different vision of justice, one that balances contention with consensus, and puts results over retribution. It is a vision of justice deeply rooted in the American tradition of self-government. In order to form a more perfect union, our Founding Fathers set forth a system of justice in which Americans are not passive spectators but active participants; a system that honors equally the rights of all Americans by making justice available and accessible to all.

     Our system of justice balances contention with consensus because, in the marketplace of justice, a monopoly on litigation serves to alienate the people from the law - and distances the legal profession from those it serves. As a young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln encouraged his colleagues to seek compromise whenever possible. "As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity to be a good man," said Lincoln. "There will be business enough."

     Disputes are inevitable, but litigation is not. As officers of the court, lawyers have a responsibility to their clients, but this responsibility must always be carried out within the context of justice. To that end, adversarial justice and consensus justice are mutually reinforcing concepts. Behind every successful mediation of a dispute is the prospect of aggressive litigation. And behind all successful litigation must be the opportunity for citizens to work together to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.

     The University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law is an unparalleled example of realizing justice through consensus as well as litigation. Since 1984, the Center for Dispute Resolution has led the nation in alternative dispute resolution training, and pioneered the Master of laws program in this field. Your outstanding faculty is the largest group of alternative dispute resolution specialists nationwide. And not surprisingly, U.S. News and World Report has once again ranked the University of Missouri Law School among the top dispute resolution programs in America. Your professors have fostered the values of tough litigation and constructive mediation, teaching you to be counselors in the true sense of the word.

     And the same values that guide this school of law also guide the Department of Justice. One year ago, for example, the city of Cincinnati was in crisis. A Cincinnati police officer shot and killed an unarmed African American man and the city erupted in chaos. The Department of Justice responded immediately, working with the mayor and other community leaders to help restore calm. We went to Cincinnati guided by a simple credo: While individuals must be held accountable, institutions must be our partners in achieving justice. From the start, we sought to establish a cooperative, rather than an adversarial, relationship. And while other investigations of this kind have dragged on for several years, last month I was honored to announce a settlement in Cincinnati. The agreement we reached - and, more importantly, the method in which it was reached - is a model for the nation. In one year’s time, Cincinnati was transformed from a city of division to a city of reconciliation.

     Elsewhere, as well, the Department of Justice has sought consensus in order to achieve justice. To provide prompt relief to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we have engaged the services of a special master. Instead of causing victims further anguish by spending needless time and money on complicated lawsuits, the September 11 Victim’s Compensation Fund has allowed the Special Master to respond immediately to the financial hardship faced by victims.

     In 1990, President Bush signed legislation calling on government to empower people to solve their own problems by utilizing mediation in civil disputes. The Justice Department has answered the call: The Department’s use of alternative dispute resolution to settle cases has grown from 550 cases per year in 1995 to 3000 cases per year in 2002.

     Not all disputes will be reconcilable through mediation, and we will not always succeed in achieving justice through consensus. But today, perhaps more than any time in our history, it is vital that we aspire to a deeper understanding of justice. For justice has enemies in the world. Her defense is more than an intellectual exercise or an academic pursuit. It is the calling of our time.

     As graduates of the University of Missouri Law School, your commitment to the examination of justice does not end with this day but has only just begun. The greatest responsibility of a society is the transmission of values - values of freedom, equality, and justice - from one generation to the next. The education you have received is an extraordinary gift, and it confers an extraordinary responsibility.

     At a gathering of lawyers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1847, Daniel Webster raised his glass in a toast: "To the law," Webster said. "It has honored us; may we honor it."

     May you, graduates, honor the law as it has honored you. The legacy you inherit is now the hope of future generations, so hold it high, and bear it proudly. Act boldly. Pursue truth. Defend freedom. And above all, seek justice.

     Congratulations, graduates. God bless you, and God bless America.