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Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein Delivers Remarks to the Associated Alumni of Central High School Annual Dinner


Philadelphia, PA
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Cynthia, for that kind introduction. I am honored to join you tonight in Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty.

Center City encompasses one of my favorite historical sites. In 1776, the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence at the Pennsylvania State House. Eleven years later, the founders wrote the Constitution in the same building, now known as Independence Hall.

I attended high school one mile outside the city line, but Central High School played a big role in my family. My grandfather, Morris Rosenstein, matriculated with the 142nd Class almost 100 years ago. My father, Robert Rosenstein, is a proud alumnus of the 199th Class. He hosted a lunch today for 33 classmates, to celebrate their 65th reunion. Congratulations to the Class of 1953!

My dad earned a degree from Temple University and ran a small business. My mom, Geraldine Stoloff Rosenstein, graduated from Gratz High School then Temple, and went on to work as a bookkeeper and serve on our local school board. 

My own interest in public service grew after I interned in the United States Attorney’s Office during law school. The federal prosecutors and agents who worked there demonstrated great intellect and tremendous integrity. They took pride in their duty to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

I wanted to work with patriots like them. So I took a law enforcement job that paid less than half of a private law firm salary. My wife reminds me that the gap grows each year. But the noble mission of the Department of Justice inspires me every day.

I have served as a Senate-confirmed Presidential appointee for thirteen years. President Bush appointed me as Maryland’s U.S. Attorney. He later nominated me to serve as a federal appellate judge, but the Senate did not approve.

President Trump appointed me to be Deputy Attorney General last year, and this time the Senate gave its consent.

The Deputy functions as the chief operating officer of the Department of Justice. My job is to help formulate the Trump Administration’s law enforcement policies and make sure Department employees faithfully implement them.

Presidential appointees in the Department of Justice bear unique responsibilities. We are accountable for pursuing the President’s priorities, and we are obligated to do so while complying with laws, regulations, and ethical principles that prohibit us from taking partisan political considerations into account when deciding what to do in individual cases. If we consider partisan factors, then judges can dismiss our cases, revoke our law licenses, and order us to reimburse the defendant.

The need to prove our claims in court imposes a powerful discipline on prosecutors. When we file a criminal allegation, the defendant is presumed innocent. We need to introduce sufficient credible evidence to satisfy a judge and prove our case beyond any reasonable doubt to the unanimous satisfaction of a jury of 12 random citizens.  The government must disclose any exculpatory evidence, and the defendant may cross-examine our witnesses and offer his own evidence. Even if the defendant remains silent, the court presumes him innocent. If any single juror is not persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant goes free.

Sometimes people look at our high conviction rates and mistakenly assume that the job is easy. But the opposite is true. Conviction rates are high because federal prosecutors exercise great care before we accuse anyone of wrongdoing. The scrutiny makes us appropriately cautious.

We use the term “rule of law” to describe our obligation to follow neutral principles. The idea dates to the fourth century BC, when Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that “[i]t is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens.”

Many nations do not follow the rule of law. Some claim that they do; they even write it into their constitutions. But as Justice Antonin Scalia noted, the rule of law is not just about words on paper. The rule of law depends on the character of the people responsible for enforcing the law.

John MacArthur Maguire described law as a system of “wise restraints that make men free.” The restraints preserve liberty because they are prescribed in advance, and they apply equally to everyone, without regard to rank or status.

The rule of law is one of the primary reasons for America’s prosperity.  It protects people from arbitrary government action. It allows businesses to enter into enforceable contracts.  And it establishes an objective mechanism to resolve disputes.

Justice Anthony Kennedy explained it this way: in a rule of law system, when you apply to a government clerk for a permit and you satisfy the objective criteria, you are not asking the clerk to do you a favor. You are entitled to the permit, and it is the clerk’s duty to give it to you. In many countries, that concept of a government bound by law to serve the people does not exist.

I visited the nation of Armenia in 1994, when it was emerging from seven decades of Soviet domination. I gave a lecture about public corruption.  When I finished, a student raised his hand.  He asked, “If you can’t pay bribes in America, then how do you get electricity?”

That pragmatic question illustrated how the young man learned to think about his society. Corruption undermines law. It stifles innovation, creates inefficiency, and inculcates distrust.

Our Constitution was designed to protect the rule of law.

During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin lived about half a mile from here. A woman named Elizabeth Powel approached Franklin when he was walking home from Independence Hall. Mrs. Powel asked Franklin what type of government the Founders had created. Franklin replied with these words: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Mrs. Powel’s question demonstrates that it was not inevitable that our nation would begin as a democratic republic.

Franklin’s answer reminds us that it was not inevitable that America would remain a democratic republic.

The Constitution comes with a condition: we need to keep it.

In modern English, the word “keep” means to hold a thing in your possession: “Here’s a ten-dollar bill; keep the change.”

Keeping something, in that sense, is passive.

But that was not Franklin’s meaning. He used the word “keep” in the same way that someone today might say, “Keep the Sabbath.” It is an active verb. It means there are things you need to do, if you want to preserve it.

Some people think that it is up to politicians to keep our government. But Franklin spoke to an ordinary citizen — a woman, who at that time did not even have the right to vote. He said that it was up to her, not him, to keep the republic.

The lesson is that we are all keepers of the republic. But the farther we get from the founding generation, the less we appreciate how much it depends on people rather than just words.

In the courtyard of the Department of Justice headquarters, there is a sculpture of the scales of justice with an inscription that reads, in Latin: “Prīvilēgium Obligātiō.” It means that when you accept a privilege, you incur an obligation. Working for Justice is a privilege.

Attorney General John Ashcroft liked to point out that our Department is named for a moral value. We aspire to live up to it.

Our goal is to instill a culture of ethical conduct from the first day employees take the oath of office – an oath to support and defend the Constitution, to bear true faith and allegiance, and to well and faithfully execute the duties of the office. Our employees learn that their job is to seek the truth, apply the law, follow the Department’s policies and respect its principles.

The rule of law is our most important principle. Patriots should always defend the rule of law, even when it is not in their immediate self-interest.

Consider the Boston massacre, in 1770.  Five colonists died after British soldiers fired on a crowd. A captain and eight soldiers were charged with murder. Many people believed that the soldiers deserved to be executed.

Most lawyers were unwilling to represent the suspects, but future President John Adams stepped into the breach. His political views were firmly with the colonists; Adams agreed that the soldiers should have returned to England. But Adams felt obligated to protect their rights under the rule of law.

Defending British soldiers was a very unpopular cause. Adams faced a serious risk, in his words, of “infamy,” or even “death.” In a diary entry about the trial, he wrote as follows: “In the Evening I expressed to Mrs. Adams all my Apprehensions: That excellent Lady, who has always encouraged me, burst into … Tears…. [S]he was very sensible of all the Danger to her and to our Children as well as to me, but she thought I had done as I ought, [and] she was … willing to share in all that was to come and place her trust in Providence.”

The rhetoric mirrors an earlier letter that Adams wrote to explain his preference for personal integrity over public acclaim. Adams wrote that in theaters “the applause of the audience is of more importance to the actors than their own approbation. But upon the stage of life, while conscience claps, let the world hiss.”

Adams endured harsh criticism in the court of public opinion. But in the court of law, he secured the acquittal of the British captain and six soldiers. Two others were convicted of manslaughter, but received only minor punishments.

For lawyers like Adams, truth is about solid evidence, not strong opinions. A 19th century Philadelphia doctor named Caspar Morris remarked that “sincerity of belief is not the test of truth.” Many people believe things that are just not true. If you drink deadly poison because you sincerely believe it is harmless, the truth will always defeat your opinion.

So people who seek the truth need to avoid confirmation bias and remain open to the possibility that the truth may not match their preconceptions.

John Adams made that point during his closing argument in the Boston Massacre trial. He said that “[f]acts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Adams weathered considerable abuse for defending the rule of law, from people who thought they knew better. He risked a reputation that he had worked hard to earn, and he incurred “clamour and popular suspicions and prejudices” that he feared would never be forgotten. Years later, Adams wrote that his decision “procured me anxiety, and obloquy …. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”

Seven decades later, Abraham Lincoln passionately supported the rule of law in a speech prophetically titled, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”  The year was 1838. Adams and the other founding fathers had passed away. At age 28, Lincoln was alarmed by rising political passions in our young republic. He worried about reports of people taking the law into their own hands: lynching suspected criminals and murdering political opponents. In his first published address, Lincoln argued that we can best preserve the Constitution by enshrining respect for law in the hearts of the citizens.

“Let reverence for the laws,” he implored, “be breathed by every American mother … let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacks — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.”

And, Lincoln concluded, “let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions” keep the rule of law.

The rule of law endures. When President Trump spoke about American values last summer, he said that “[w]e treasure the rule of law.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained that “the Department of Justice does not represent any narrow interest or any subset of the American people. We represent all of the American people and protect the integrity of our Constitution.”

One of our nation’s most famous Attorneys General held a similar view. In his first speech after taking office in 1940, Robert Jackson spoke about the duty of government officials to serve the public interest. He said that “most … mistakes … [result from] failure to observe the fiduciary principle … the principle of trusteeship, without which our kind of society cannot long endure.”

Jackson reportedly directed his subtle criticism to the mistakes of two predecessors: Harry Daugherty, who failed to investigate the Teapot Dome scandal; and Frank Murphy, who made public comments about ongoing investigations and instigated criticism of Jackson.

Jackson explained that lawyers “who sit temporarily in the position of government counsel, are subject to [obligations] … that those outside the profession never” face. He contrasted the special duties of government lawyers with what he called “the volatile values of politics.”

Jackson understood that “[f]undamental things in our American way of life depend on … government lawyers.” He said that “lawyers must at times risk ourselves and our records to defend our legal processes from discredit, and to maintain a dispassionate, disinterested, and impartial enforcement of the law.”

Jackson believed that although political tempers flare from time to time, any “temporary passion” will eventually yield to “sober second thought” about the rule of law. “We must have the courage to face any temporary criticism,” Jackson urged, because “the moral authority of our legal process” depends on the commitment of government lawyers to act impartially.

Less than three years later, Jackson was a Justice of the Supreme Court, and World War II brought “dissension and lawlessness” to “much of the world.” In November 1942, Jackson discussed the role of lawyers in preserving liberty.

Jackson invoked a parable about three stonecutters asked to describe what they are doing.  The first stonecutter focuses on how the job benefits him. He says, “I am earning a living.” The second narrowly describes his personal task: “I am cutting stone.” The third man has a very different perspective. His face lights up as he explains what the work means to others: “I am helping to build a cathedral.”

“[W]hether we are aware of it or not,” Jackson explained, lawyers “do more than earn [a] living[]; we do more than [litigate] [individual] cases. We are building the legal structure that will protect … human liberty, [for centuries to come].”

Whatever you do for a living, you should never forget about the cathedral. Take the time to consider the big picture. You are always building a legacy, whether you realize it or not. You set an example for your colleagues, you establish a standard for your constituents, and you lay a foundation for your successors.

Let me conclude by quoting a legendary Philadelphian, Rocky Balboa. The original Rocky premiered in 1976, when I was in seventh grade. It captures the grit of this great city, and the spirit of America.

The remarks of John Adams and Robert Jackson bring to mind a scene from the 2006 sequel, when Rocky tells his son: “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows…. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.”

That advice applies in boxing, in law, and in life.

Prīvilēgium Obligātiō. Privilege comes with obligations. If you like the rule of law, you need to keep it.

Thank you, and good night.

Updated June 5, 2018