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


Charlottesville, VA
United States

Thank you, Chris Martin. It is an honor to stand with you, and to join Dean Paul Mahoney and the UVA law school faculty – and so many proud parents, friends, and family members – in congratulating you and your classmates.

I’d like to take a moment to recognize the Student Bar Association Graduation Chairs – Lauren Prieb, Melanie Smith, and Carolyn Greco – as well as Dean Kevin Donovan and Dean Steve Hopson, for everything that they have done to make this ceremony so special. I also want to thank the Class of 2011 for inviting me to share in this moment – as we celebrate the many achievements, and contributions, that have distinguished your time here in Charlottesville. And I’d like to give a special hello to my friend and former colleague, Professor Bob Sayler, who I’m sure will be grading this speech.

Already, today’s graduates have accomplished something that no class in history has done before – you’ve survived three whole years with Dean Mahoney. You’ve also made it through many of the same rites of passage that have become familiar to Virginia Law School students for decades. You’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars for local charities by winning – and losing – countless softball games. You’ve practiced your oral argument skills by debating whether fly balls that hit the tree in Copeley Field are fair or foul. You’ve written lyrics and choreographed dance moves for your famous Libel Show – and some of you have worked, unsuccessfully, to keep your performances off You Tube.

These are just a few of the many experiences that you will carry with you. And, today, as you reflect on the last three years – and as you say good-bye to Feb Club parties and Thursday afternoon drinks in Spies Garden, to friends you’ve come to rely on, and to professors you will never forget – I’d like to invite each of you to take a moment to appreciate what – for you – makes this law school such a remarkable place.

Maybe it’s the famously collegial atmosphere – that culture of community and camaraderie that is seen, and felt, across the North Grounds. And you undoubtedly have been enriched by the academic rigors that come with attending one of the top law schools in the country. According to the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, UVA is up one place from last year, thanks – I can only assume – to the Class of 2011.

Or maybe you’re drawn to the history of this place, and the people – from Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, to FBI Director Robert Mueller and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano – who have helped to establish and to extend UVA Law School’s rich tradition of public service.

Today, alumni of this law school are serving across government, and – I’m proud to say – at every level of our nation’s Department of Justice. The list of these alumni includes some of my most trusted advisors – including my former Chief of Staff, Kevin Ohlson, as well as my former Deputy Chief of Staff, Jim Garland – who have provided critical leadership for my office, and for the entire Department.

Our network of United States Attorneys also includes three UVA Law graduates: Tim Heaphy – who serves here in Charlottesville, and who I’m glad could be with us today – as well as Neil MacBride, of Virginia’s Eastern District, and Zane Memeger, from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Before they were leading these critical offices – and advancing some of the most important prosecutions in the country – the three of them were roommates in a house on Cleveland Avenue. Like many of you, they had not yet discovered just how well UVA had prepared them – not only to join our nation’s legal community, but to lead it.

This afternoon, as you join the ranks of this University’s alumni – you, too, will begin to define your own place in history. Not only do you have an extraordinary opportunity, you now have an essential obligation – to serve the cause of equal justice, to stand up always for the rule of law, and to use your talents and training to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Right now, you are among the most qualified people in this country to give, to lead, and to serve. Armed with an outstanding legal education, you will fan out across the country and all over the world, ready – and well equipped – to affect meaningful change wherever you choose to make your home, and however you decide to make your mark.

This is the moment that you have been working toward and waiting for. It’s the result of a commitment that each of you made – three distant years ago – when you started law school; and a choice that you ratified with the decision to stick with your studies in spite of the economic turmoil that gripped this country throughout your time here, and the clouded job outlook you once thought was secure. Make no mistake: you will face similar tough choices throughout your lives and careers. And each time you must ask yourselves, “Will I accept – and be satisfied with – things as they are? Or will I keep faith in my vision for a better world? Will I work to bring about the progress I hope to see for myself, and for others?”

The answers may seem obvious right now – but these are not rhetorical questions. And, as you officially begin your journey of service in the law, no outcome is preordained.

It was not inevitable that our founding documents would protect our rights to free speech and religious worship, or that, ultimately, slavery would be abolished, or that voting rights would one day extend to women and to people of color. These achievements did not happen by chance. And they did not come easily.

These righteous changes were brought about by the generations of leaders and – in many cases, lawyers – who devoted their lives and careers to our nation’s long – and still ongoing – fight for justice and equality; and by the millions, throughout our nation’s history, who – and I quote – “saw wrong and tried to right it; saw suffering and tried to heal it; saw war and tried to stop it.”

Those famous words were spoken more than 30 years ago, by one distinguished graduate of this law school about another. In 1968, Senator Ted Kennedy used these words to eulogize his late brother, Robert Kennedy – a leader who still stands as one of our nation’s champions of human rights and equal justice.

Exactly sixty years ago, Robert Kennedy sat where you do now – eagerly waiting to receive his UVA Law School diploma. But the truth is that he was lucky to be here at all. When Robert Kennedy was accepted to this University, he was warned that he would have to “greatly improve his academic performance” in order to remain enrolled. During his time here, he was never known for speaking up in class, but had a habit of propping his feet up during lectures. And I’m told that one landlord nearly evicted him for scuffing up hardwood floors with his football cleats.

Robert Kennedy hardly started off as a model law student. But, during his third year here in Charlottesville, he found – and seized upon – a cause that ignited his passion, and propelled him into action.

As a 3L, he became president of the Student Legal Forum – an organization that works to bring notable speakers, and national leaders, to address the law school community. In the spring of 1951, Robert Kennedy decided to invite Dr. Ralph Bunche to the Law School. Dr. Bunche was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a distinguished diplomat who helped establish the United Nations – and an African American. At that time, not a single black student had enrolled in the J.D. program, or in UVA’s undergraduate college.

This University, for all intents and purposes, was still segregated – as were public meeting halls across Virginia, not only by longstanding custom, but also by the force of law. For Dr. Bunche – a passionate opponent of segregation – this was simply unacceptable.

He decided that he would accept Robert Kennedy’s invitation – but only on the condition that he be allowed to speak before a fully integrated audience. So, Robert Kennedy faced a choice – one which would prove to be a defining moment – and an auspicious beginning – for his legal career.

Now, he easily could have avoided controversy, and politely explained to Dr. Bunche that such a thing would be impossible – that it was well beyond his power or control – and that, regrettably, the invitation would have to be withdrawn. He could have bent to custom – and to state law – and moved on to the next distinguished name on his list of potential speakers.

That course of action might have been consistent with the easygoing, feet-up-on-the-table image that the young Bobby Kennedy maintained among his classmates and professors. But that is not the Robert Kennedy we know from history – the brave, outspoken man who fought to integrate the University of Alabama; who helped to calm a city, and to heal a nation, in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination; the man who stood up to the Mob; spoke out against apartheid, and traveled to the poorest corners of this country to shine a light on the needs of – and this nation’s obligations to – America’s most vulnerable citizens.

Before he became known for his courage and compassion, his dedication to principle, and his stubborn determination to do what is right – Robert Kennedy exhibited the first flashes of these traits right here, at the University of Virginia, as he worked to bring Dr. Bunche to Charlottesville and to meet his conditions.

First, he went to the Student Council – asking them to pass a resolution to allow an integrated audience for the event, if not a sweeping change in University policy. Many privately told him they agreed with the resolution, but couldn’t support it. As one member of the Council explained, “I’ve got to go home to Alabama later… I’m for it, but I can’t put my name to it.”

Ultimately, the resolution failed.

Next, he turned to the faculty – and some professors suggested that the Legal Forum skirt the rules by declaring that a section of the audience would be for African Americans only, but then allowing people to sit wherever they liked. This might have been an easy way to avoid controversy and to declare a kind of victory – but Robert Kennedy wasn’t satisfied. He rejected the idea immediately.

This wasn’t merely about seating arrangements in Cabell Hall, he said – this was about overturning an unjust policy.

So, Robert Kennedy went to Colgate Darden, the University President at that time. President Darden did not favor segregation, but he was not yet ready to oppose the status quo – at least, not until a group of law students – led by Robert Kennedy– helped to change his mind.

In the end, Robert Kennedy and some likeminded classmates – as well as several professors – convinced President Darden that, based on a recent Supreme Court decision integrating a law school in Texas, any educational event – at any law school in the country – must be desegregated.

When, at long last, Dr. Bunche arrived at Cabell Hall – it was filled to capacity. And, for the first time in history, nearly a third of the seats were taken by African Americans.

Sixty years later, I believe that Robert Kennedy would be proud to see this diverse, and extremely talented, group of graduates. These 372 JDs and 21 LLMs are accomplished men and women who represent nearly every state – and more than a dozen foreign countries.

You’ve worked and studied all over the world – and have already made an impact through your volunteer activities and clinical service. From the Peace Corps to the United States armed forces – from the CIA and the U.S. Marshals Service to the World Bank – you’ve represented this country and this University with distinction, and have helped to enrich communities across, and beyond, these grounds. You’ve used your legal training to assist vulnerable tenants, children, seniors, patients, and victims – as well as struggling nonprofits and community organizations. You’ve taught everything from elementary school, to piano lessons, to sailing classes – and have shown off your considerable skills on the rugby pitch, on the stage, and even on Jeopardy!

In fact, well before your arrival here, this class had already accomplished a great deal. And the truth is that each of you very likely could be making a good living – without ever setting foot in a law school classroom, wrestling with torts or contracts, or subjecting yourselves to long hours of study with very little sleep.

And yet – here you are.

Three years ago, you chose to submit yourselves to the rigors of a top legal education, at one of the world’s most prestigious law schools – without any guarantees about where this path might lead you. You made a critical choice – just as generations of UVA Law students have before you: to serve the cause of justice, and to dedicate yourselves to the principles that made our nation great and, surely, will guide our future progress.

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 each of you, especially Danya Atiyeh and Melanie Stuart – the two graduates who will soon be coming to the Department of Justice, to work for me.

But whatever path you take, and however you decide to apply your considerable knowledge and skills, I can think of no more exciting time to be entering the legal profession than in this new decade of the 21st century. Yes, there are complex problems to solve, unprecedented threats to address, and novel legal questions to answer. But you all have the potential – as well as the power that a UVA law degree affords – to confront today’s most pressing challenges, 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.

As you pursue your own passions – and work to fulfill your collective responsibilities – I hope, in the spirit of Robert Kennedy – your famous predecessor, and mine – that you will dare greatly; that you will question what is accepted and change what is objectionable; that you will root out injustice in all its forms; and that you always will remember the truth of his enduring words: “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.”

As you work to shape this future, and to strengthen our nation’s record of progress, I have no doubt that you will extend this law school’s long tradition of service – whether through private practice, government, or other public interest work. And, as you make your way forward, know that we have faith in you. We are proud of you. And we are counting on you all.

The America that you are building for your children depends on the strength of the commitment you make to that which is best about our nation.

Always remember that positive change is possible – not by accident or chance – but whenever good people are willing to band together, and to work together, to improve the lives of others.

As graduates of the University of Virginia Law School this is your inheritance – and it is now your duty.

Congratulations, Class of 2011, and good luck.

Updated August 18, 2015