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Justice News

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at New York University School of Law’s Convocation
New York, NY
United States
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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Good morning and thank you all for that warm welcome.  Dean [Trevor] Morrison; Provost [Katherine] Fleming; Chairman [Anthony] Welters; distinguished faculty; fellow alumni; proud parents; honored guests; and over-achieving graduates about to become over-worked lawyers – thank you for the honor to speak before you today at my beloved alma mater.

It’s quite intimidating to be giving remarks with so many distinguished faculty behind me, but it’s especially nerve-racking because my four and seven-year-old sons, Rohan and Chetan, are also in the audience today.  They don’t usually accompany me to any speeches, but they really wanted to come this time.  I initially thought my boys were just hoping that if we took them to New York, they would get to see the musical Hamilton, which they’re obsessed with.  They know the lyrics to every song.  They’ve even searched for and watched the most obscure Hamilton-related videos on YouTube.  But when Chetan insisted on actually attending the commencement ceremony, I was really touched.  He sincerely wanted to hear my speech.  Still, I told them they really didn’t have to sit through such a long ceremony.  They could just watch my remarks online later.  That’s when Chetan balked and said: “But Mom, I have to meet the Trevor Effin’ Morrison.”

Now, for those of you in the audience who don’t have the faintest clue what I am talking about, just Google “Trevor Effin’ Morrison.”  I promise you won’t be disappointed by the way NYU Law students have put their talents to use.  But please don’t do that now.  My ego is too fragile to deliver these remarks to the top of your heads as you bow over your smart phones.

I will confess that I remember about two words from my law school commencement, oh about 15 years ago.  Those were “Vanita” and “Gupta” as I was being called up for the hooding ceremony.  I am not sure I even remember who did the hooding.  So, low bar: all I ask is that you remember just a few words from my remarks besides your name from this ceremony.

I really am so very honored to speak here.  I came to the law school in the fall of 1998 not knowing what to expect.  As someone who had no lawyers in her family, I spent my first year trying hard to understand the foreign language of the law.  I poured over outlines deeply insecure that my fellow students understood the complex legal concepts I couldn’t grasp.  But I had professors like Kim Taylor-Thompson, who refused to let me believe I wasn’t cut out for law school and told me to keep the faith.  And then I met Randy Hertz in my second year and discovered my community in the clinics and at the Review of Law and Social Change – and the friends I made are important in my life these many years on.  I eventually found my voice, my calling and my tribe, and I love this law school for it.  It was a total honor then that for several years I was invited to teach a civil rights litigation clinic with Claudia Angelos, and it quickly became apparent to me that, compared to the caliber of students in the clinics, I may very well have not gotten in were I applying today!

Just 15 years ago, I sat in your seats.  I felt some mixture of excitement, apprehension and awe – emotions that may feel familiar to some of you.  Today you enter an energizing profession; a noble profession; a profession that, at its best, reflects the values of “We the People.”  In America, we use the law, and we turn to lawyers, to translate values and ideals – among them, equality, fairness, freedom and opportunity – into real protections for all people in this country.  Of course, throughout our history, the law hasn’t always lived up to our highest ideals.  For centuries, the law justified what Martin Luther King Jr. called America’s “long night of racial injustice.”  Indeed, for centuries, through slavery and Jim Crow, the law codified discrimination and oppression.  The law treated women, people of color, the poor as second class citizens, at best. 

But the beauty of America’s story – and the promise of America’s legal framework – is that we, as a country and as a people, can change.  We can evolve – imperfectly yet unyieldingly – when individuals stand up and speak out to ensure that our legal system brings our nation closer to its most cherished ideals.  You may have read about these people in casebooks and heard about them in lectures.  But these people do not fall from the sky.  They are we.  They are you.

Today, from LGBTI rights to policing and criminal justice reform – on problems once viewed as intractable, issues once viewed as untouchable and progress once viewed as unimaginable, at this profession’s proudest moments – even in a profession predicated on precedent and preservation of the status quo – lawyers continue to envision a different path and to take risks on behalf of courageous men and women determined to shape our country into a more just union.

Despite the tireless efforts of so many to drive this progress – including efforts from my outstanding colleagues at the Justice Department – in too many communities across America today, we see a dramatic gap between what our laws guarantee, on the one hand, and what people experience, on the other.

We see this gap in our elections – as too many voters face too many hurdles to engaging in the democratic process.  We see this gap in a justice system that too often ends up criminalizing poverty and disability.  We see this gap even half a century after Gideon v. Wainwright, as too many poor defendants don’t have meaningful access to counsel.  We see this gap 62 years after Brown v. Board of Education as children continue to attend racially segregated schools and live in racially isolated neighborhoods.  We see this gap as communities struggle to build trust with law enforcement and confront issues of use of force, racial justice, officer and public safety.  And we see this gap in efforts to deny LGBTI individuals – especially transgender men and women – the respect they deserve and the protection our laws guarantee.  And let me add this – efforts like House Bill 2 in North Carolina not only violate the laws that govern our nation, but also the values that define us as a people.

Starting today, as you enter the legal profession, our society will now look to you, turn to you and count on you to close this gap.  As you embark on your journey, let me share some advice centered around three simple words: courage, purpose and kindness.

Be courageous.  No matter where you practice law, I promise you, you will have opportunities to lead with courage, to combat injustice and to serve the public good.  As lawyers you will encounter moments and face decisions that test your character – decisions about who to represent, what argument to advance and when to put your foot down. 

In a small town called Tulia, Texas, I learned this lesson firsthand fresh out of law school as a 26-year-old newly minted lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  The false testimony of a single police officer with a troubled history in law enforcement had sent dozens of African-American defendants to prison on low-level drug charges, with sentences ranging from 20 to 361 years.  The day after the arrests, the local paper ran a headline, “Tulia’s Streets Cleared of Garbage.”  I drove for hours on the flat highways of Texas, going from prison to prison, visiting my soon-to-be clients who generously overcame their initial shock at seeing someone who looked like she was 14 years old to allow me to be their lawyer.  I met with my clients’ families who displayed overwhelming courage in the face of daunting odds.  I stayed up nights literally terrified that I was missing deadlines to file petitions to get my clients’ cases back in court.  I had moments of panic that I was in over my head.  At times, I was in over my head.  Working with pro-bono lawyers from some of the top firms, we tried to leave no stone unturned.  Two years later, in 2003, Governor Rick Perry pardoned my clients, finally setting them free.

I’m telling you this story not just because it taught me about the strength of communities or the impact of the law or the power of lawyers.  I’m telling you this story because it taught me about courage – about how the courage of my clients fueled my own resolve even in the hardest times, when I thought we would lose and never see justice.

My advice: especially when the odds seem stacked against you, especially when you feel most uncomfortable and at sea, trust – and act – your conscience.  The most meaningful things I have ever done in my life have never been easy and have always made me feel uncomfortable, sometimes even a little scared.  History does not reward timidity.  And even when other people in implicit, quiet ways tell you to know your place, do not stay silent.  Fellow women graduates – I’m especially talking to you here.  This profession needs you.  Don’t let anyone make you believe anything else.

Remember, though, that translating courage into real change requires more than just idealism.  Maintaining uncompromised purity of your position may make you feel good at night, but it may not make change.  Change requires rolling up your sleeves, thinking strategically, listening to people you don’t agree with, crafting a path to justice and having the courage to stand up and speak out when others stay silent.

My second piece of advice: find your purpose.  I promise it will make your career more fulfilling.  For me, I found my driving purpose early on from my own family’s story.  Roughly half a century ago, the promise of American opportunity led my amazing parents to emigrate from India in search of greater opportunity for their children.  The promise of American equality led my sister to come out as gay and see that in this country, you can love whomever you choose and feel not only safe, but also supported.  The promise of American protection led my husband and his family to flee violence in Vietnam and seek refuge here in the United States.  And these promises that our laws and Constitution guarantee continue to drive me today as I work alongside the men and women of the Department of Justice, who strive tirelessly to protect and advance civil rights for everyone in this country.

I hope each of you finds a true purpose, real meaning and unique story that drives you.  Don’t worry about not having a long-term career plan – I didn’t.  I didn’t plot my career – I took jobs where I thought the work was meaningful and impactful and where I admired my colleagues.  And trust me, once you find that thing that gets you up in the morning – not just for the closing argument in a big trial, but for the average Monday at the office – it will make the work that you do immensely valuable to our society and deeply fulfilling in your own life.

And lastly, as you find courage and purpose in this profession, remember to treat people with kindness and compassion.  That starts with the people closest to you in your life – your friends; your family; your clients; whoever it is that matters most to you.  In all honesty, as the mother of two young boys and with a husband who does so much day-in and day-out to support me, I still struggle with this “work-life balance” issue every day.  It isn’t easy.  You need to glance up from the screens every now and then and actually look into people’s eyes.

At the end of the day, people, not places or positions, make your work meaningful and your life enjoyable.  And people will define the depth of your happiness.  So if and when you choose a life partner, choose wisely – as I did with Chinh.  It may even be the most important decision you make for your career.  As a mother of young children, I simply couldn’t do this job without his support, his partnership and his humor.  In both my personal family and at the Department of Justice, we solve problems as a team.  We work together.  We support each other.  We learn from one another and we have fun too.

Whether interacting with your co-workers, your clients or opposing counsel, treat people with respect.  This might seem like it goes against the grain of what you think makes for an aggressive advocate, but being zealous does not mean being uncivil.  Trust me, being strategic and staying focused – while also treating people well – is the best way to drive real success and demonstrate great leadership.

Class of 2016 – if you lead with courage, if you work with purpose and if you act with kindness and compassion – I know you will change this profession and our country for the better.  So go out and use the law to make the ideal of justice a reality for all.  And just to make sure my kids are still listening: don’t throw away your … shot.  We need you.  We’re counting on you.  And individuals and communities all over the country are relying on you to drive some big change, to make some loud noise and to do some real good in this world.  Congratulations; I wish you all the very best of luck.

Topic(s): 
Civil Rights
Component(s): 
Updated August 19, 2016