Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the American University Washington College of Law Commencement
Washington, DC
United States
Sunday, May 23, 2010

President Kerwin, Dean Grossman, distinguished faculty, proud fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, siblings and friends, and, most important, the class of 2010. I am honored to stand with each of you and to join you in celebrating a day you have earned and, I’m certain, will never forget. I am also proud to be among the first to welcome you into a profession that will provide countless opportunities for you to hone your new skills, continue your learning process, channel your greatest passions, and improve the world we share. And it gives me great joy to say “way to go” Marilyn Vasquez!

Today, it is a special privilege – not only to be here on this beautiful campus – but to address you all in this particular arena. Nearly two and a half years ago, I was sitting where you are today, watching history unfold. On January 28, 2008, the late Senator Ted Kennedy came to Bender Arena to announce his support for Barack Obama’s improbable, and inspiring, candidacy for the Presidency of the United States.

Senator Kennedy said that he could feel “change…in the air [and] moving across America.” I’ll never forget his words, or the applause that followed them.

Now, as I look out on this sea of blue, I can see five graduates who look a little different, and a bit more distinguished, than the rest – James Day, Paul Ferguson, Francis McDermott, Clyde Henning, and Joseph Hairston. They are not departing graduates. They are returning members of Washington College of Law’s Class of 1960. Fifty years ago, they also moved from this campus – law degrees in hand – at a time when “change [was] in the air” – and not merely a change in party, but also, and more importantly, a change in attitude: about war, about rights, about humanity, and about the law. The Sixties were about to begin.

Like me – a fellow old-timer – these returning graduates can remember when, in June of 1963, another Kennedy – President John Kennedy – also brought history to this campus a visionary, and legendary, commencement speech.

Though “some,” President Kennedy observed, “say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament,” he argued that, “no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

“Our problems,” he said, “are manmade [and], therefore, they can be solved by man.”

That day, although the eyes of the world were upon this university, President Kennedy spoke directly to students gathered before him. He called on them to reexamine their attitudes and to reconsider their possibilities. He reminded them of their readiness, and responsibility, to serve. And he enlisted their partnership in the pursuit of peace, progress, and – above all – justice.

Today, graduates, I ask the same of you. And, today, I also ask that, for a few minutes, you set aside your concerns about job prospects, though I know they are many; that you set aside the fresh memories of final exams, though I hope they are already fading; and that you instead consider why, of all things in this world, you chose to become lawyers.

Whether you’re imagining a future defending the accused in a courtroom, drafting rulings in your chambers, prosecuting human rights abuses in your homeland, serving the people of your state in Congress, joining the JAG Corps, or something altogether your own, I would wager that your presence here today has something to do with the wisdom President Kennedy offered to future generations half a century ago – only yards away from this very spot.

The obligations that President Kennedy spoke of – “to respect the rights of others and to respect the law of the land” – have now become your charge. This afternoon, as you celebrate everything you’ve achieved and experienced here, I know the last thing you want to think about is your new bond of responsibility. But, starting now, that is what you must do.

Yes, you are entering an uncertain world – one burdened by economic recession but showing signs of recovery. And you are taking leave of this campus in an age, not only of change, but of unprecedented challenge, new threats, and ongoing war. Yet, you must resist the temptation to feel as though you have been dealt a bad hand. What you have been given is a rare chance.

Very soon, you will learn that times of difficulty, of novel questions and new tests, are the most exciting, and consequential, times to be a lawyer. Since our nation’s earliest days, the service and contributions of attorneys – and, very often, of young attorneys – have kept our great American experiment in motion. Throughout America’s history, people your age, with exactly your training, were on the front lines of efforts to abolish slavery and segregation, to secure voting rights for women and civil rights for all, to provide health care for our seniors and our poor, and to guarantee decent wages for our workers. And that’s not only true in America. It is true across the world.

And now, graduates, it’s your turn. And, today, it is your time – to improve the course of our country and world, to strengthen the structures and rules that govern our society, to find the most innovative and effective ways to combat injustice, and to ensure that the change we feel in the air is transformed into substantive progress for the world we all inhabit.

Over the last half century and in the past three years – and even in the months since today’s LLM graduates arrived on campus – our country and world have come far. Consistent, meaningful progress has been made. But the unfortunate fact is that injustice remains. Divisions and disparities remain. And the poorest among us continue to suffer most. For many, economic recovery hasn’t come quickly enough – particularly for your generation, which – I don’t need to tell you – faces fewer job prospects than usual.

There are also more systemic threats to our society: terrorists who live only to murder the innocent; an environment so clearly in the balance and at the mercy of mankind; a justice system whose promise of fairness is too often compromised by the large number of defendants who cannot afford or access representation; and the alarming number of children who are exposed to crime, violence, disease, and neglect.

But while injustice may be everywhere, injustice is not inevitable. Even our most stubborn and complex problems are not intractable. They can, in fact, be solved by the same forces that created them: human beings. Man made problems are susceptible to man made solutions. You are proof of this. And WCL is a living, breathing testament to this age-old truth. At the turn of the last century, when opportunities for women in the legal profession were practically non-existent, two pioneering leaders – Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillett – changed everything, and overcame the injustices of their day, by establishing this institution.

You know, they weren’t planning to start a law school. But, after they encouraged six young women to apply to study law at Columbian College – now George Washington University – this institution became a necessity. Those six young women were turned away, and denied their dream, because, according to Columbian officials, and I quote, “women did not have the mentality for the law.” Today, I’m proud to see more than half of today’s graduates are women – on this campus, as well as GW’s.

Because of you – the young women and young men before me – the spirit of WCL’s founding fight against injustice is alive and thriving. You’ve spent tens of thousands of hours volunteering to rebuild New Orleans. You’ve shaped human rights laws through your partnership with the United Nations. You’ve worked with the Navajo Nation to provide pro bono legal assistance to tribal communities. And, of course, you prevailed in rooting out the injustice of that original WCL logo redesign.

And, now, you must continue this work. You must continue to serve and empower others. And, above all, you must seize your new opportunity to advance the cause of justice.

This work, I believe, must begin by defining justice. By considering what justice looks like and by asking, What does justice feel like?

Of course, justice feels like June 10, 1963 – when President Kennedy stood on this campus and became the first Cold War President to outline his vision for a freer, fairer, and more peaceful world. But justice also feels like the very next day – June 11, 1963 – on another college campus, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

On that summer morning – at President Kennedy’s orders, at Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s insistence, and with the help of the Department I am now privileged to lead – a young woman named Vivian Malone became one of the first two African-American students to enroll at the University of Alabama. Most of you have seen the dramatic images: Governor Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, demanding “segregation now” and “segregation forever”; Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach asking him to stand down; then the Alabama National Guard finally demanding he step aside.

Vivian is my late sister-in-law. Long before I knew her personally, long before I married her sister, long before I could fully comprehend or appreciate the significance of that moment, I watched her on the news take those historic steps forward. As she strode through that door, what I saw – and what the entire country saw – was justice being done, finally, for aspiring black college students everywhere.

Justice also feels like October 28, 2009, when President Obama signed the first law in nearly 225 years of the United States Code to refer explicitly to gender identity – the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. On that day, at long last, our prosecutors became newly empowered to protect our nation’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals from vicious hate crimes.

I tell you these stories in hopes that they will encourage you to consider, as one final thought exercise before you receive your diplomas, what vision of justice you hold most sacred.

Many of you not only have a vision, but have already acted on it. Carrie Garber began a nonprofit for Cambodian school children. Caleb Medearis already completed – get this – 547 hours of pro bono service. And Adrian Alvarez traveled to the Dominican Republic to enhance freedom of expression. Others have rallied against torture, started much-needed legal clinics, led international human rights law workshops, and brought together judges, activists, and Supreme Court Justices to discuss ways to strengthen our legal system. Members of this class have used their knowledge to teach and tutor high school students in public schools across this city. And a few of you, in your ultimate pursuit of justice, successfully convinced Professor Rice that you deserved a passing grade in his evidence class.

Whatever your vision, whatever your purpose, I call on you – not only today, but throughout your lives – to look at justice as more than simply the absence of injustice, but as the abundance of opportunity.

You will be left, then, with only two questions: How? and When? Questions you will answer with the same spirit of service, compassion, and commitment that has defined your time on this campus. After all, so many of you came to WCL, and to our nation’s capital, to earn a law degree that is not an end unto itself but rather a means toward a larger societal goal.

And you’ve advanced your goals in many different ways – for this is a terrifically diverse class. You come from nearly 50 countries, from Serbia, Syria and Kazakhstan to Denmark, Panama and Iran. You speak 40 languages, including Azerbaijani, Creole, Kiswahili, Urdu and Bambara. You’ve studied or worked abroad in more than 30 countries. And you’ll soon be fanning out to nations across the globe. You are filmmakers, therapists, interpreters, reporters, refugee caseworkers, military officers, archeologists, ministers, candidates for Congress, Misileers, and, my favorite, crypto-logic linguists. There is, quite simply, no limit to what you can accomplish. And there is no more important time to apply your experience.

I understand that, when today’s J.D. graduates first arrived here in 2007, Dean Grossman posed a question to those 1-L students. “What is more exciting,” he asked, “than studying for a career that gives you the opportunity to shape and improve the world?” Today, I’m here to tell you that there is, in fact, something more exciting than studying for this career, and that’s beginning this career.

As of today, you are no longer just students of the law. You are now stewards of our justice system. And I expect a great deal from all of you – especially the three graduates who will soon be coming to the Department of Justice, to work for me.

But whatever you decide to do, whatever path you take, I can think of no more exciting time to be entering the legal profession than in this new decade of the 21st century. You all have the potential – as well as the power that a law degree affords – to improve your own circumstances, to assist and protect others, and to lead our nation, and our world, toward a new era of prosperity, healing, and opportunity.

And so, in the spirit of President Kennedy’s 1963 address, let us, “confident and unafraid… labor on,” together, toward justice for all humankind.

That is your mission – and that, graduates, is your responsibility.

Good luck, and congratulations to you all. Along with Marilyn, I am proud of each and every one of you.

Updated August 20, 2015