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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the University of North Carolina Law School Commencement


Chapel Hill, NC
United States

Thank you, Kavita, for those kind words; for the leadership that you – along with Jacqueline Azis – have provided as 3-L Class Representatives; and for your service, last summer, as an intern for the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. Although I was disappointed to learn that you won’t be coming to work for me again later this year, I was glad to hear that you will soon be joining my former colleagues at Covington & Burling as a first-year associate.

This morning, I’d like to thank you, as well as your fellow student leaders – including SBA President Crystal Boni and 3-L Class President Elyssa Sharp – and all of today’s graduates – for the opportunity to share in this important moment. It’s a pleasure to be in Chapel Hill today, and a privilege to join Dean Boger –– along with the distinguished members of the UNC law school faculty, staff, and administration; Robert Wicker, and every member of the Law Alumni Association – and so many proud parents, family members, and friends – in congratulating each of our graduates, and celebrating the many achievements that have distinguished the Class of 2012.

Today, we mark the end of your formal legal training, and the beginning of your stewardship of our nation’s justice system. I have no doubt that you are well prepared for the legal journey ahead – and for many other pursuits. That’s not just because your predecessors have gone on to become leaders at the highest levels of our nation’s legal community, our civic institutions, and our foremost businesses – though many certainly have. And it’s not merely because the graduates who sit before me are only moments away from officially entering the legal profession at a critical juncture in our history, filled with both challenge and opportunity – though that’s also true.

It’s because UNC is – and long has been – a unique and extraordinary community. A place where generations of aspiring leaders and lawyers have come – from across this state and around the world – to learn, to grow, and to confront the most urgent problems of their times; and a training ground where students don’t just talk about the law in an abstract way – you regularly engage with, and even challenge, those who help to shape it.

Over the years, an impressive range of national and global leaders – from President Franklin Roosevelt to President Obama – have arrived on this campus to discuss the most important issues of the day. And it’s been an incubator for new theories, a forum for the thoughtful exchange of ideas, and – just last month – even a venue for “slow jamming” the news.

I am honored to add my voice to this dialogue. And I’m proud to stand among so many aspiring leaders, passionate advocates, and rightful heirs to a tradition of scholarship and service that stretches back to the founding days of our Republic – when UNC opened its doors to become America’s first public university.

Now, I’m sure you’re all familiar with – and proud of – this rich and storied history. But today, I can’t help but reflect that it was no accident that the United States and the University of North Carolina were conceived in the same year – 1776 – founded on the same bedrock values, and codified in the legal documents that – respectively – launched the American Revolution and established the Tar Heel State. In fact, this University received its charter just months after the U.S. Constitution went into effect and George Washington swore the first Presidential Oath of Office. And this Law School was established just one year before a young attorney named Abraham Lincoln – concerned about the state of an increasingly divided Union – won a seat in the United States Congress, and started down a path that would lead him to the Presidency.

For more than two centuries, the same pivotal forces – and guiding principles – that have determined the course of our nation have also reverberated across this campus. And the people who have lived, learned, and studied in these same academic buildings – and who once sat where you do today – have, in turn, gone on to shape and re-shape the world we live in.

Of course, I am hardly the first to make note of this illustrious history – and the proud legacy that binds this institution to our shared identity as a nation.

Half a century ago – in the fall of 1961 – President John F. Kennedy came to Chapel Hill. In a sweeping address that boldly asserted America’s place on the global stage, he called UNC students to remember where they had come from – and challenged them to take ownership of where they, and their fellow citizens, were heading.

“I hope that you will realize,” he said, “That from the beginning of this country, and especially in North Carolina, there has been the closest link between educated men and women and politics and government. And . . . that our nation's first great leaders were also our first great scholars.”

Today, you are our great scholars. And you not only have the potential to be our next great leaders – you’re well on your way.

When the Class of 2012 came to UNC three years ago – from 22 states, the District of Columbia, and as far away as Australia – you represented 70 different undergraduate majors, nearly every age group, and a diverse array of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Since then, you’ve forged lasting bonds of friendship and fellowship with one another.

Together, you’ve survived torts, contract law, and more all-nighters than any of you care to remember. At least one of you has beaten cancer. And six of you will soon become the very first UNC graduates to hold LLMs. As a class, you’ve cheered on – and relied on – one another. In moments of triumph, you’ve rushed Franklin Street, and reminded the rest of the country which school has taken control of the South’s Oldest Rivalry. And, in times of tragedy, you’ve grieved with – and worked to support – each other.

You’ve also come to embody the defining, deeply-ingrained culture of service that has always been a hallmark of this university. No less than 85 percent of the Class of 2012 has participated in pro bono work, performing a total of more than 17,500 hours of service – the highest amount on record. Some of you have served your country in the military. Others have participated in Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps. Through summer internships, externships, and volunteer programs, you’ve supported the efforts of overburdened public defender offices. You’ve helped state and federal agencies conduct the business of the American people. You’ve assisted nonprofits and advocacy groups across the political spectrum with their essential work. And some of you have advanced your legal education in some creative, and less traditional, ways.

You’ve written and performed sketches, songs, and videos for your wildly successful Law Revue – that’s “Revue, with a U-E” – and used the proceeds to fund a public interest grant. You’ve channeled your extensive legal knowledge to establish, and to share, the “civil rules of bro-cedure.” You’ve studied, and reenacted, your favorite Supreme Court cases using “SCOTUS Action Figures.” And you’ve tried – valiantly, but unsuccessfully – to keep these efforts off of YouTube.

These precious moments – and enduring contributions – are part of your larger impact on this institution. But, as of this moment, it is time to start thinking about the legacy that you will build far beyond here. Behind you are the late-night study sessions – and 3 AM corndogs at Cook Out. Your exams and papers have been completed. And, although I’m sure that cheering for the Tar Heels – and against the Blue Devils – will remain a lifelong passion, your time on this campus – as a physical part of this community – is drawing to a close.

As you leave law school, you will step into – and take charge of – a future that is far from certain; an economy that has been buffeted by once-in-a-lifetime challenges, but is in the midst of recovery; and a nation that remains at war with a determined, global enemy – and is at risk of falling short of its obligations to achieve justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.

Across this country, too many neighborhoods are scarred by violence. Too many children are exposed to crime, abuse, and neglect – particularly in minority and low-income communities, where homicide is the leading cause of death among black men between the ages of 15 and 24. Too many Americans face obstacles in accessing quality, affordable health care and legal services; learning opportunities; good jobs; and – even today, nearly half a century after the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act – obstacles in accessing that most basic and important of uniquely American rights – the right to vote.

Class of 2012, you now stand at a crossroads in our history. And it’s time to begin making some important choices:

How will you pursue your passions – and use your new skills – in confronting the challenges, and fulfilling the responsibilities, we all share? What contributions – to your community, your nation, and your world – will define your years of service to the law, and to all those it protects and empowers? And what will the graduates in this crowd imagine, dream – and help to realize – that those who came before you could not?

None of these questions are rhetorical. And it’s important to remember – as you depart this University, and begin to define your place in its history – that nothing can be taken for granted, and no outcome is preordained.

After all, there was a time when the doors to quality institutions of higher learning – like this one – were firmly closed to large segments of the population. When voting rights did not extend to young people, women, and people of color. When slavery was an integral part of this nation and segregation was the law of the land. And when electing an African American President – or appointing a black Attorney General – was simply inconceivable.

It’s important to remember that – although the story of our nation has always been one of expanding opportunity – these achievements did not happen by chance.  They did not come easily.  And they will only endure as long as there are dedicated leaders – and lawyers – who are willing to devote their energy and expertise to defending and building upon them.

Leaders like Harvey Beech, Floyd McKissick, James Lassiter, and J. Kenneth Lee – who, more than six decades ago – became the first African Americans to enroll in classes at UNC Law. Even after they were admitted – thanks to a court order – they had to rely on police protection to ensure their safety, and were forced to go to court yet again to secure their right to sit in the student section at Tar Heel football games. Years later, one of them reported that – after he had graduated and passed the bar – jurors often looked out the window rather than look him in the eye while he argued a case.

These four young men lived in a time when the law itself denied them the totality of their civil rights. But they found the courage to stand up for justice and equality. And they demonstrated great faith – in our nation, in our legal system, and in the power of every individual to bring about righteous, transformative change.

This fight – for opportunity, equality, and justice – is the fundamental struggle that has always driven those who enter our profession. From the young attorneys and statesmen who assembled one summer in Philadelphia to draft a Declaration that shook the foundations of an empire, and set in motion the great American experiment that is now our sacred charge; to those who – here in North Carolina – ratified a state constitution calling for “all useful learning” to be “duly encouraged and promoted in one or more universities.” From the women who petitioned this state’s General Assembly in 1868 for the right to vote – and came back again in 1917, in 1919, and finally in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment took effect; to the UNC students and faculty members who – in the 1960s – marched down Franklin Street, organized sit-ins, and argued passionately for the civil rights of all.

This is the legacy of progress that our predecessors have established. It represents the inheritance – and the solemn obligation – of every scholar and leader. And – despite the advances that have been made even within my lifetime – make no mistake: the hardest work is far from over.

Today, this work goes on in the efforts of those who, despite setbacks and disappointments over the years, have rallied their fellow citizens – and who will no doubt continue to fight – to ensure that, no matter what you look like or believe; no matter where you’re from or how you worship; no matter who you are – in any sense– your best interests and basic rights will always be protected.

It goes on in the efforts of today’s Justice Department, as we take decisive action to guard against the disenfranchisement of voters; to protect the rights and liberties of every American; to expand access to quality, affordable legal representation for those who cannot afford it themselves; and to ensure the safety of our nation’s most vulnerable people, including children who are exploited or exposed to violence and drugs, the poor, and individuals with disabilities.

It goes on in the aspirations – and, most importantly, in the actions – that will define the journey you begin today; and in your determination to seize the breathtaking opportunities that lie ahead.

I’m encouraged that, already, many of you are planning to pursue public service opportunities – including two individuals who will soon be coming to work for the federal government, and one who is already running for state office. Others will soon go into private industry or private practice – where I hope you will keep up the habit of pro bono service you established here at UNC.

But, however you make your living – and make your mark – never forget that you are among the most qualified people in this country to lead. You are among the best equipped to serve. And you are among the most prepared to affect meaningful change – no matter what path you choose.

With all that you possess and all that you have been given, you have a special responsibility to our nation. After all, as President Kennedy reminded your predecessors, our nation will be relying on all of our “educated men and women” – to use your skills, and your training, to overcome a host of complex challenges that – in some cases – can’t even be imagined yet.

“This versatility,” – he said – “This vitality, this intellectual energy, put to the service of our country, represents our great resource in these difficult days". Know this: that, although you graduate in a time of uncertainty and great challenge – it is also a time of historic opportunity and enduring hope.

So as we look toward the future we seek – and, together, must build – I urge you to bear President Kennedy's words in mind. You are our strongest assets in preserving the progress that has been entrusted to us. You are our surest hope in protecting the sacred rights, and extending the civil liberties, that so many generations have struggled and sacrificed to attain. And you will undoubtedly become our next great leaders in advancing the cause – and making good on our nation’s founding promise – of equal justice under law.

I’d like to thank each of you, once again, for the opportunity to join you today. It’s a privilege to celebrate this milestone with you – and to officially welcome you into our nation’s legal community. I am honored to count you as colleagues – and as partners. And I am proud of each and every one of you. Congratulations, Class of 2012.

Updated August 18, 2015