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Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates Delivers Commencement Address at University of Georgia School of Law


Athens, GA
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Provost [Pamela] Whitten, Dean [Peter] Rutledge, distinguished faculty, staff, proud parents, family, friends and most of all, to the extraordinary men and women in the class of 2016, thank you for inviting me to share in this special day with you.  It is an enormous privilege to join you as you celebrate this turning point in your lives. 

I have to tell you that I’m particularly thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with you today because, believe it or not, I loved law school.  More specifically, I loved law school here, at the University of Georgia (UGA).  I loved the academic rigor I found here, which pushed me intellectually, challenged my assumptions and taught me a new way to think.  I was nerdy enough to enjoy the research, the sparring when called on in class and even trying to pick apart principles of arcane property law that I was convinced I would never need again.  But the real reason I loved law school here, at the University of Georgia, why I have an emotional, not just academic, connection to this place, is because of the people – my law school classmates.  I was lucky enough to have as classmates some of the brightest, most clever, quick-witted, inspiring people whom I have ever known.  We were competitive, to be sure, but not in a mean-spirited, tear the pages out of books kind of way.  I’m showing my age because, in my day, we actually read cases from reporters in the library.  Rather, if someone were called on in class and didn’t know the answer, my classmates didn’t sit there smugly watching the prey wiggle.  They would surreptitiously try to whisper the answer, helping each other avoid humiliation whenever possible.  That built a trust and camaraderie that has lasted my entire professional career.  Some of my best friends today are those I made in my first year section.  And that is what sets UGA apart from other law schools.  Not only do you get a top notch education that will take you wherever you want to go, but you also learn how to get there without being a jerk.  You learn that someone else’s failure is not your accomplishment and you learn that the way you treat one another as colleagues defines what kind of lawyer you’re going to be far more than does your GPA. 

I hope that you all have taken the time to let the momentous nature of your achievements sink in and that all the people who supported you and believed in you along the way, your parents, grandparents, friends and mentors, are likewise basking in your accomplishment.  Together as a class you have celebrated moot court victories, survived Professor [Erica] Hashimoto’s classes, which I understand are pretty tough, and gotten in touch with your irreverent side in sketches for the annual law revue – including, I understand, some pretty memorable impersonations of Professors [Michael] Wells and [Dan] Coenen and even Dean [Peter] Rutledge.   

And you also came together in moments of tragedy.  A number of you lost parents and loved ones during the past three years and I know that their absence here today is particularly poignant.  But when members of your class suffered those gut-wrenchingly painful losses, you were there for each other.  And those are the kind of bonds that will last a lifetime.

But now your time on this campus is quickly drawing to a close and we should not only celebrate what you’ve achieved, but also ask you to think about what you’re going to do with your future.  I think this is the point in the speech where I’m supposed to give you the obligatory commencement advice.  This is tricky territory, to give advice without sounding insufferably pedantic, or perhaps worse still, without actually being insufferably pedantic.  I may fail at both.

I know that the usual graduation advice is to tell you to look inside yourself, find your passion and then follow it.  And if you were graduating from one of the other colleges here at the university, that might be my advice to you today.  But you’re not graduating from one of the other colleges.  You’re graduating from the law school.  And the degree that you have earned carries with it a responsibility that no other degree does.  Because you now hold in your hands the key to unlock justice in this world.  To reveal truth.  To stand up for the rights of the voiceless.  To hold our country to its promises.  That degree that you’ve just earned doesn’t belong just to you.  Rather, you share it with the world.  Because justice in our world requires lawyers.  Whether it’s resolving a civil dispute, or ensuring that an individual criminally accused is afforded his rights, or doing what I’ve done most of my career –  holding individuals accountable when they violate the law – the citizens of our country can’t obtain justice without you, the lawyers.  So given that you now have a key that few others carry, you have to decide how you’re going to use that key.  Are you going to unlock justice?

Students at this school have a proud tradition of facing that question.  Fifty-five years ago, in May of 1961, a UGA student invited Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to give the law day address.  Attorney General Kennedy took the podium just four months after a federal judge had ordered two African-American students, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, admitted to the university.  In response to that order, students rioted.  The legislature tried to cut off funding to the university to prevent their admission.  And Hunter and Holmes were jeered just about everywhere they went.  The brand new Attorney General came to this campus and told the crowd what they could expect from his Justice Department; that the Department of Justice would ensure that our country lived up to its promise of equal rights for all Americans; that he agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education overruling the doctrine of separate but equal; and that  regardless of whether one agreed with the decision or not, Brown was the law of the land and his Justice Department would be enforcing it.   

In concluding his remarks, Kennedy said, “All the high sounding speeches about liberty and justice are meaningless unless people such as you and I breathe meaning and force into it.”

Attorney General Kennedy’s words echo here today.  This is the sacred charge entrusted to each of us in the legal profession – to pursue justice, not just rhetorically, but to breathe meaning and force into it.

Sometimes, such as during Attorney General Kennedy’s tenure at the Justice Department, the stakes could not be higher, or the breadth and scope of our challenges more vast.  There are certain defining moments in history that are sharp inflection points reshaping our nation and our world.  And if one of those moments occurs on your watch, I hope you seize that challenge and use your legal skills to make fundamental and positive change.

But successfully carrying out our responsibility as lawyers doesn’t always require sweeping national movements.  Walls don’t always need to be torn down.  Laws don’t always need to be repealed in order to transform the shape of our society for the better. 

Sometimes justice prevails on grand scale and sometimes it flourishes in the simple righting of a wrong.  Being a lawyer means standing ready to take on those seemingly routine cases, happening day in and day out, all across our country that  have a profound impact on the lives of ordinary Americans.

And from my own experience, I can tell you that those opportunities are likely not far off.

Two years after graduation, I was working as a young associate at King & Spalding in Atlanta and took on a pro bono case to represent a woman by the name of Lovie Morrison.  This case was my very first trial – yet it would become the most meaningful case of my entire career.

Ms. Morrison was 93 years old and the first African-American land owner in Barrow County, Georgia, not far from here.  She owned 93 acres of land, 6.2 of which had just been annexed by a real estate developer building a subdivision.  The problem was that Ms. Morrison – mistrustful of the white court system – had not timely recorded her deed, carrying it instead tucked inside her dress each day as she worked the fields.   

By the time she did record the deed, a conflicting survey of property was on the books which was now being used by the developer to lay claim to her property.  In the 1930s in rural Georgia, Ms. Morrison had good reason not to trust the court system.  In the late 1980s, that same system was being given another chance to earn her trust. 

We filed an action to return the property to Ms. Morrison using a theory I had planned on forgetting after first year property class – adverse possession.  Ms. Morrison’s family had made use of the land we were fighting over by washing their clothes in the stream that ran through it and cutting timber for firewood.  

The time came to try the case and I needed help.  Not only had I never tried a case, although I come from a family brimming with lawyers, I had never even seen a real trial.  To my great relief, the late Charlie Kirbo, who was then a senior partner in the firm and known to take young lawyers under his wing, agreed to help.  From that moment on, Mr. Kirbo treated the Lovie Morrison case with the same determination and commitment that he would have the most significant matter for Coca Cola.  The same man, that had been known as President Carter’s one man kitchen cabinet and who had counseled national and international leaders, walked that land with me, strategized with me and when the trial came, sat next to me and guided me.  Mr. Kirbo demonstrated, not through any grandiose lectures, but through his own actions, a profound commitment to justice.

When the case was tried, our client and her daughter were the only African Americans in the in the courtroom.  Batson did not yet apply to civil cases and opposing counsel struck all the African Americans from the jury pool.  Many of the jurors personally knew the real estate developer, his expert and his lawyers.  All logic would tell you that our client didn’t have a chance of prevailing on an adverse possession claim in this setting.

But a remarkable thing happened in that jury room.  That group of 12 jurors – who went to church with the developer, who used his lawyer as their own, whose expert surveyor had surveyed most of the juror’s properties – did the right thing.  I wish that I could claim that their verdict was because of something I had done, like an inspirational closing or a blistering cross examination.  But the truth is, the verdict was in spite of my novice performance, not because of it.  Those 12 people were given an opportunity to do what was right and they embraced it.  Our client was not the only one who left that courthouse with a new belief in our system of justice.  Those jurors left with a sense of pride at having taken their responsibility to heart and having done what was right.  As lawyers, what a gift we have been given to be a part of that and what a responsibility we have to safeguard it. 

Of course, this case didn’t alter the course of history.  It didn’t make any headlines, it wasn’t about a lot of money and we didn’t establish any new legal theories.  But this experience demonstrated to me how powerful unlocking justice can be. 

Not too long after the trial, I decided to apply for a job as a federal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta.  Truth be told, I didn’t expect to stay there very long.  I thought I’d be there a few years, get some trial experience and then return to the firm.  I had never thought about being a prosecutor when I was in law school.  I didn’t even take any advanced criminal law classes, which you all may find a little unsettling given my current position.  But here I am, 27 years later, still with the Justice Department.  The fact of the matter is, as corny as it sounds, once I had experienced the privilege of representing the people of the United States, it was hard to imagine going back to representing any other client.  As a prosecutor, I had both the opportunity and the responsibility to do what was right and just and fair every day in every case.  I had the opportunity to stand up for victims, to make communities safer and, most importantly, to seek justice in a manner that sought to engender the trust of the public we serve. 

But prosecutors don’t have a monopoly on public service.  I have every confidence that you all will find a way during the course of your careers to meet the special charge that we have as lawyers.  In fact, many of you have already embraced that responsibility during your time here in law school.  You’ve given your time to the criminal defense clinic and prosecutorial justice program.  You’ve advocated for children in foster care and through your work with the cottage and with project safe, you’ve volunteered to help victims of sexual violence, child abuse and domestic violence.  Your actions already demonstrate recognition that being a lawyer means not just serving clients, but serving society by fighting for those who need your help, who need your voice, who need you standing by their side. 

I’d like to close by telling you about a recent intersection between the work of some students graduating here today and my work in Washington.  As some of you may know, the Obama Administration has embarked on a clemency initiative designed to address the disproportionately long sentences given to lower-level, non-violent drug offenders who were sentenced under outdated drug laws.  As Deputy Attorney General, I am charged with making a recommendation to President Obama on each petition.  One such recent clemency petition was prepared by two of today’s graduates.  These students participated in the representation of a man named Steven Boyd.  In 1998, Mr. Boyd was convicted of selling crack and sentenced to life in prison.  He had absolutely no history of violence and other than a few small time drug deals, no other criminal history.  Yet the harsh mandatory minimum statutes in effect at the time mandated a life sentence.  That’s life with no possibility of parole.  The students prepared Mr. Boyd’s petition for clemency and submitted it to the Justice Department.  That petition made its way to my desk and then on to the White House.  And just three weeks ago, the president granted Mr. Boyd’s clemency petition.  Mr. Boyd served 18 years and paid his debt to society.  As a result of your classmates’ hard work and their commitment to their duty as lawyers, Mr. Boyd will be a free man.  Your classmates unlocked justice for Steven Boyd.   

Each and every one of you has both the capacity and the obligation, in the words of Attorney General Kennedy, to breathe meaning and force into the pursuit of justice.  I hope that you will seize opportunities to right wrongs large and small, that you will stand up for the voiceless and that you will uphold the promise of our country.  I hope that you will use the key that you are about to receive to unlock justice. 

Thank you for the privilege of joining you today.  And congratulations again to the class of 2016. 

Updated May 21, 2016