Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Lecture at the University of Montana School of Law Jones-Tamm Lecture Series
Missoula, MT
United States
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thank you, Bob [Bennett]. It is an honor to join you and to be among so many distinguished leaders and members of Montana’s bench and bar, including United States Attorney Mike Cotter and Attorney General Steve Bullock.

As Bob mentioned, the two of us have been friends for a long time. Not only is he one of our nation’s best and wisest counselors, he is also an enthusiastic ambassador for the University of Montana and its School of Law. Let me assure you – he never misses an opportunity to champion this school’s extraordinary students and alumni and its unique and dynamic approach to legal education.

Of course, much of the credit goes to Dean Russell and her team of administrators, faculty, and staff. Thank you for inviting and welcoming me to your beautiful campus.

I am grateful for the opportunity to do something that every attorney, and certainly any Attorney General, regularly should – to consider how our nation’s system of justice can be strengthened, how our founding promise of justice can be fulfilled, and how the challenges before us can be overcome – through public service.

In the spirit of Judge William Jones and Judge Edward Tamm – the visionary namesakes of this lecture series – that’s exactly what today is all about: taking a step back from what we do and what we study to consider what we owe – to our community, to our country, and to our fellow citizens.

Both Judges Jones and Tamm dedicated their lives to public service. And both, I must point out, also worked for the Department of Justice early in their careers.

I am proud to join you in honoring their legacies – and I am delighted to help kick-off your celebration of the University of Montana School of Law’s centennial anniversary.

For the last one hundred years, this school has been a place of learning and contribution, of practical application, as well as intellectual rigor, of public-policy study and of public service opportunities. I am pleased that your school practices a philosophy of “people-oriented law,” and ensures so many clinical opportunities. Given the culture of cooperation – not competition – that has come to define this campus, I trust that your next century will be marked by exponential progress – and the caliber of achievement that has defined its first 100 years.

Today, let us dedicate ourselves to that – and to your future – just as much as we celebrate the past.

But first, in the spirit of anniversaries – and of rededications – let us consider a place 2,000 miles east of Missoula – the city I’ve just come from: Washington, D.C. – and a different time – 1961 – half a century ago. It was the beginning of a new era. And on January 21st of that year, our 64th Attorney General – and my most famous predecessor – took the oath of office. He was only 35 years old – and his name was Robert Kennedy.

In recent weeks, as the Justice Department prepared to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s swearing in, I have been thinking a great deal about that moment – and the extraordinary years of ballot drives, freedom rides, free schools, and civil-rights breakthroughs that soon followed it.

In 1962, Attorney General Kennedy said to the American people that, “In a democratic society…the glory of justice and the majesty of law are created not just by the Constitution – nor the courts – nor by the officers of the law – nor by the lawyers – but by the men and women who constitute our society, who are the protectors of the law as they are themselves protected by the law.”

Consider that idea, for a moment – it’s a big one. The “glory of justice” does not lie only in our legal code or our judicial system. And the chance to advance and bring about justice is not restricted only to those with three years of legal training, or stellar grades, or an enviable job. Every one of us – as citizens of this great nation – has the opportunity, and the obligation, to protect the promise of justice. And every student in this room has all of the tools necessary to help bring justice to those in need.

I have seen the power of this ideal – and of the activism and commitment of young people – at every stage of my life and career. And it is evident throughout our nation’s history.

In fact, this may be America’s oldest – and perhaps finest – tradition. Since our nation’s earliest days, young people – and, specifically, young lawyers – have been using their knowledge and training to stand up for justice. Generations of young attorneys have found 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. Though it’s been widely accepted that the key framers of the Constitution were the “wise old men of the Republic,” the truth is that the greatest legal document in the history of mankind was actually established at the insistence of, and through the advocacy of, young people. There were, of course, elders on both sides. But what's less known is that it took young Americans – coming together, mobilizing communities, writing pamphlets and letters, and calling for continued action until their vision of a Constitution became reality. In fact, the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, was also one of its oldest champions – and he was only 36 at the time of the Constitutional Convention.

This history underscores a trend that we’ve seen, time and time again, in every chapter of America’s story. Many of the great social advancements in our nation’s history were, in no small part, the result of ideas that young attorneys and advocates envisioned and worked to implement. 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 conception and creation of our civil rights laws.

Today – as in 1911, when this law school was founded, and 1961, when Robert Kennedy began his historic tenure as Attorney General – this state, and our entire nation, face both unprecedented threats and unforeseen opportunities. We also face the choice of a century – a choice between a future of service and a future of apathy.

Will we continue our nation’s long and noble commitment to the pursuit of justice, no matter how difficult or consequential the sacrifices involved? Will we roll up our sleeves, seek out those in need and at risk, and take the steps necessary to generate change? Will we exhibit the grit and ingenuity to build, to innovate, to create new opportunities for others? Will we demonstrate the irrepressible tenacity and boundless optimism that characterized the generations that preceded us and extended our nation’s greatest traditions?

Today, I call on each of you to choose action, to choose compassion, and to choose a future of service – the service of justice.

Here in Missoula, it may be easy to feel removed from Washington and from the work of our nation’s Justice Department. But you all can – and you must – be partners in our work. You should also know, just as surely as I do, that the Justice Department cannot fulfill its critical responsibilities without the engagement and commitment of students and future leaders like yourselves, both here in Montana and across the country.

Of course, there are many examples of Montanans venturing out from this state – and this campus – to make a difference nationwide. For example, Jeannette Rankin, class of 1902. She grew up on a ranch only a few miles from the University of Montana. After graduating with a degree in biology, she went on to become the first female member of the United States Congress – struggling for women’s rights – and for peace – when many women were still not allowed to vote.

This tradition of service and achievement is now yours to carry forward. This is an extraordinary moment – an extraordinary time to learn, to live, and to make powerful differences for your fellow citizens, through the law – or through whatever field you study.

I hope each of you looks for ways to serve others and, by doing so, to serve the cause of justice. Not only do you have the ability to create the change and progress you hope to see. You also have the responsibility.

Whether you eventually lead movements, decide cases from the bench, return to the classroom to teach, run for office, advise clients, or defend the accused, you can – and you will – define the future. You may choose 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 access legal services. But each of you can find ways to call on our country to aim higher, become better, and do more for the most vulnerable among us.

As I look out at all of you, I am reminded of a question that was penned by the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. A question that, nearly half a century ago, Attorney General Robert Kennedy copied into his personal diary.

“Ah, what shall I be at fifty,
should nature keep me alive,
if I find the world so bitter
when I am but twenty-five?”

Like me, you stand high on the shoulders of those who have come before you – Judges Jones and Tamm, Congresswoman Rankin, Attorney General Kennedy, and so many others. And while you are the beneficiaries of their contributions and commitment, you are also stewards of our nation’s progress. America’s “glory” – and its “majesty” – are in your hands.

So, know that I am counting on you. Your nation is counting on you. And, as you celebrate 100 years of excellence, know that history is counting on you, too.

Good luck to you. And thank you all.

Updated August 18, 2015