Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, U.S. Attorney [Wifredo] Ferrer – a proud Penn graduate – for that kind introduction and for your outstanding service to the American people. I am grateful to call you a colleague and a friend, and I’m glad you could join us today. I also want to thank Dean [Ted] Ruger for his kind words and for his outstanding leadership of this venerable institution. And to the distinguished faculty; honored guests; proud parents, family, and friends; and members of the class of 2016, I want to say that it is an enormous privilege to join you this afternoon and it is a tremendous honor to address you on this happy occasion.
This is the time to reflect on just how much you have to be proud of. As soon-to-be graduates of one of our nation’s finest law schools, you have had to work extremely hard to reach this moment. You have attended countless lectures, written dozens of papers, pored over case after case and slogged through hours of exams. Along the way, your abilities have been tested, your assumptions have been challenged and your view of the world has been expanded, refined and enriched.
Your record outside the classroom is no less impressive. You have run the gauntlet of on-campus recruiting and spent summers at firms, government agencies and nonprofits. You have contended for the Keedy Cup, competed in moot competitions throughout the country, challenged the Wharton School to a boxing match and edited and published five prestigious legal journals, including the nation’s oldest law review. Most remarkably of all, every single one of you has completed 70 hours of pro bono work, and over 90 percent of you have tallied even more – a tribute to this class’s spirit of generosity, commitment to service and desire to make a difference. As someone who has found great fulfillment in public service, I thank you for that.
In so many ways, this is a remarkable group. Three years ago, you came to Penn from across the country and around the globe, representing 35 states, the District of Columbia and countries as near as Canada and as distant as New Zealand. You brought with you a wide range of perspectives and an incredible array of experiences. Before law school, you were students and teachers, activists and advocates, entrepreneurs and executives. Your ranks include a rabbi, a professional hockey player and a trapeze artist, and I can only hope that at some point, the three of you walked into a bar together. You arrived here in the fall of 2013 as strangers, and today – after three years of studying, thinking, writing, arguing and even pumpkin-carving side by side – you will leave as friends, as colleagues and as partners in the law. You enter a wonderful profession that will call on your skills, your intellect and your heart as you contribute to its ranks.
In just a few moments, you will receive the degrees that you came here to earn. And in doing so, you will not merely be collecting a credential. You will be accepting a responsibility – a responsibility that is quite literally stamped on your diplomas, in the motto of this great university: “Laws without morals are in vain.” That motto is a reminder that, on their own, laws are simply instruments. They can be used to protect rights or to suppress them; to nurture fairness or perpetuate inequality; to shelter the interests of a privileged few or improve the welfare and well-being of all. And of course not just history but recent memory has stark reminders of times when the law has been used as an instrument of oppression.
Here, in this country, our original sin was written into our founding documents as a matter of accepted fact. Jim Crow was more than a minstrel song – it was a system of laws specifically written to disenfranchise African Americans both politically and economically. Even today, we see attempts to legislate away the protections so many people fought and died for – the right to vote, indeed the right to be free from discrimination itself. But the law is truly the instrument of the people. What tilts the scales one way or another are the morals and convictions of the people who create, interpret, execute and apply the laws – a group that now includes all of you. Each of you can read statutes, apply cases and marshal facts into a persuasive argument. Each of you can practice law. But the question for you now and throughout your career will be – can you hold justice in your hand. And wherever your path in this great profession of ours takes you – service to the judiciary or academia, helping to structure our economy or standing in the arena of the courtroom – my wish for you, my charge to you, is that you do not just practice law, but find a way to hold justice in your hands.
The pursuit of justice has been the driving force of my own career. It is a responsibility I have felt since I was young, when my father told me stories about my grandfather, who lived in a farming community in North Carolina. His education stopped at third grade, and as a sharecropper, he didn’t own the land that he tilled. His circumstances were humble, to be sure, but he was a well-respected minister and became a pillar of his community. He even built a church next to his house – Lynch’s Chapel – where he served his neighbors, earning their respect and regard.
Now, as you can imagine, rural North Carolina in the 1930s was not the easiest place to be poor and black. If you got into trouble with the law – and under Jim Crow, that didn’t take much – you had very few options. The rights you’ve learned about – the right to a speedy trial or a jury of your peers – were just words on paper. These were the days of Plessy v. Ferguson. Martin Luther King Jr. was only a child; Ernesto Miranda wouldn’t be born for another 10 years; and Clarence Gideon wouldn’t petition the Supreme Court for another 30. With so much discrimination and hatred in the air – and with so little recourse to justice – many African Americans who ran afoul of the law decided that their only option was to leave. On several occasions, people fleeing town did so with the sheriff on their heels, and the only person they could turn to for help was my grandfather, the minister. Even though he was a sharecropper, dependent on white farmers to hire him – and even though the law said that the people coming to him for help may have done wrong and deserved punishment – he would go out of his way to hide them and keep them beyond the law’s reach. The sheriff would knock on his door and ask, “Gus, have you seen John?” And my grandfather would say simply, “No, I haven’t seen him lately” – words that John could probably hear from beneath the floorboards or in the pantry where he hid.
My grandfather’s courage left a profound impression on me. On one side was a man of integrity – a man of God – who was simply trying to do what any of us would recognize as the right thing, the just thing, but standing in opposition to the law. On the other side was the sheriff, who represented the law, but who certainly did not represent justice. Hearing about this at a young age made it clear to me that the presence of law does not always guarantee the presence of justice – that, in other words, laws without morals are in vain. Each of us has an obligation to make justice real in the world in whatever way we can. As a prosecutor, I have continued to hold on to that purpose, to that calling, to make the promise of justice real for those coming through our criminal justice system. My grandfather was willing to risk his livelihood – and perhaps his life – for that ideal. How could I ever reach for less? All of us can practice law; but how do we hold justice in our hands?
Of course, we have come a long way since the 1930s. Laws protecting our civil rights, our environment and important principles of economic fairness represent the progression of our society. My father has gone from a world that barely recognized his humanity to one in which his only daughter is the 83rd Attorney General of these United States. And yet there are still realms where, despite the indisputable progress we’ve made, we continue to fall short of our ideals. Far too many Americans continue to face discrimination based on what they look like, where they come from, how they worship, whom they love or even something as profoundly private and personal as where they use a restroom. Our criminal justice system disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities, contributing to a stubborn and destructive cycle of poverty and incarceration. Fifty years after Gideon v. Wainwright, a person’s access to justice all too often still reflects the size of their bank account. And one of the cornerstones of the civil rights era – the Voting Rights Act – now faces renewed challenges.
I am extremely proud of the headway that the Department of Justice has made on these and so many other fronts under the Obama Administration. But these are not challenges that can be solved overnight. They will persist long after this administration has left office. And soon, it will be your job to address them, to build upon the work of those who have gone before you and to leave a better world for those who will follow you. That is your calling as lawyers. And it is your responsibility as graduates of this institution, not just to practice law, but to hold justice in your hands. We welcome you to the profession and the fight.
After all, it was almost exactly a mile from here, at Independence Hall, that our forebearers asserted that all men are created equal. And it was in that same place, 11 years later, that they established a government designed to safeguard that basic but revolutionary principle. You may know that only six men signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. One of them was James Wilson, who delivered the first law lectures in Penn’s history. Another was Ben Franklin, who – when he wasn’t discovering electricity or setting up the postal service – established the University of Pennsylvania. He had a particular conception of what this institution would be. Unlike other colleges of the day, which were devoted to educating the clergy, Franklin wanted Penn to be a place where idealism mingled with pragmatism. He wanted it to be a place that trained engaged citizens, thoughtful public servants and dedicated civic leaders. He wanted Penn’s graduates to involve themselves in their communities and their country – to devote themselves to the hard work of continuing what he and his colleagues began right here in Philadelphia.
For centuries, Penn graduates have lived up to Franklin’s vision for his university and his hopes for the country. If you want examples of how to shape the direction of our nation, you need only consider the stories of those who have sat here before you. You could look to Caesar Augustus Rodney, the sixth – and most impressively named – Attorney General of the United States, who undertook the first defense of striking laborers in American history. He lost the case, but he struck a blow for justice. You could look to Sadie T.M. Alexander, who overcame tremendous barriers to become the first black woman to receive a degree from Penn Law, the second African American woman to earn a Ph.D. and the first president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated – a sisterhood I would join many years later. Alexander went on to work as a civil rights advisor to President [Harry] Truman, serving on the committee that wrote “To Secure these Rights,” the landmark report that led to the desegregation of the federal work force and the military. Or you could look to Alan Lerner, who received both his undergraduate and law degrees here at Penn and who served on the Penn Law faculty for more than 15 years. Before his final year of law school, he – along with hundreds of other students – traveled to Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer of 1964, risking his life to help black Americans win the right to vote.
These are just three of the many remarkable individuals who have passed this way before you. Each of them did exactly what Franklin hoped they would do. They recognized that they had a role to play in the ongoing work of aligning our reality with our ideals. They lent their talent, their vision and their energy to the task of moving this country forward. They did what they could to hold justice in their hands and to fulfill the promise that was made just a mile from here – the promise of liberty, justice and equality for all. You now join their ranks.
Moments before the Constitution was signed, Franklin offered the final known speech of his long and incomparable life. On that day in the late summer of 1787, he said, “I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults.” With all its faults. Franklin knew that the work of the Constitutional Convention, however miraculous, was far from perfect. But he had faith that the generations to come would find a way to mend those faults, to make our union a little more perfect. And so far, we have done just that: from Bunker Hill to Appomattox and from Seneca Falls to Selma; from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 19th Amendment and from the civil rights laws of the 1960s to Obergefell v. Hodges – we have won these and so many other victories only because people of good will and moral conviction refused to stand aside when there was more to be done. The courage and commitment of ordinary Americans: it is the story of our past. It is the guiding light of our present. And it is the hope of our future.
That future is in your hands. Today, your tenure as students of the law comes to an end and your career as stewards of justice begins. The challenges before you are daunting, but if you approach them with purpose and principle – if you seek always to use the instruments of law with wisdom and resolve, with justice in your hands – I have no doubt that you will succeed. You will make our profession stronger. And I am certain that you will make our country stronger, more inclusive and more just.
Thank you all, once again, and congratulations.