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Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the University of Minnesota Law School Commencement
Minneapolis, MN
United States
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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Thank you, Dean [David] Wippman, for your kind introduction and warm welcome.  To the many distinguished faculty, proud parents, restless siblings and future lawyers here today – thank you all for the honor to speak with you.  Before I offer a few words of commencement advice, I want to give a couple shout outs – to your outstanding Senator Amy Klobuchar; and to my dear friend, former Civil Rights Division colleague and now the soon to be honorable judge, Mark Kappelhoff.

Just 15 years ago, I remember sitting in my law school graduation listening to all these speeches.  And I remember thinking back to how when I first started law school, I didn’t really understand what it meant to practice law.  I grew up without any lawyers in my family.  To many of my peers this stuff about torts and civil procedure seemed like a common language, but to me it felt, at times, like grasping at straws.  And as I sat at graduation, I remember asking myself – after all the late nights; after all the final exams; and after all the cold-calling – what comes next?  How do I translate this legal training into practice?  Now maybe unlike me, you already know the answers.  I see lots of highly educated, over-achieving and really serious lawyers here today.  But whatever the coming weeks and months hold in store for you, here at your commencement, I want you to think bigger – not about jobs, titles and cities, but about the principles that will guide your legal career, about the values that will define your life.  Starting today, you get the power to make these choices.  And you get the freedom to chart your own course.

As you do so, I hope you take time to reflect on the societal challenges around you.  In too many communities across our country, we can see a dramatic gap between what the law guarantees, on one hand, and what people experience, on the other.  This gap exists for many reasons: systemic inequality, implicit bias and explicit discrimination.  And despite decades of transformative progress, even today, in 2016, this gap continues to harm communities, to hurt people and to erode public trust.

Even more than 150 years after America fought a civil war to end slavery; to fight for equality for all, regardless of race; and to defend, as Lincoln described at Gettysburg, the ideal of government “of the people, by the people, [and] for the people,” we see jurisdictions suppressing the voting rights of minority communities.

Even half a century after Gideon v. Wainwright, we see too many poor defendants forced to navigate the courts without meaningful access to counsel.  In a small town called Tulia, Texas, I saw this problem firsthand fresh out of law school as a newly minted lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  This was a case where the uncorroborated and false testimony of a single police officer sent dozens of African-American defendants to prison on low-level drug charges, with sentences ranging from 20 to 361 years.  These defendants found themselves with court-appointed attorneys, who were paid a paltry flat fee per client.  Many attorneys met their clients for the first time on the same day they advised their clients to plead guilty, without filing a single motion or doing any investigation.  Working with pro-bono lawyers from some of the top national law firms over two years, our clients were finally exonerated.  In 2003, Governor Rick Perry pardoned the defendants, finally setting them free.  And at just 28 years old, I got the education of a lifetime about the profound power of the law to change communities and to impact lives – both for ill and for good.

Even after the Supreme Court’s landmark gay marriage decision last year in Obergefell v. Hodges that guaranteed all people “equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” we see new efforts to deny LGBTI individuals 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.

And even decades after dramatic progress in race relations and landmark civil rights legislation, we see a profound lack of trust between law enforcement and communities of color.  As communities around the country, including right here in Minnesota, struggle with these issues around policing – the use of force, racial justice, officer and public safety – it presents a critical opportunity to engage in tough, robust and complex conversations to drive real reform.

So today, I want to ask you, in the face of these complex problems that present no easy solutions, how will you, as lawyers, respond?  And as you think about this question, I want to give you three pieces of advice centered around three simple words: ambition, courage and kindness.

First – ambition.  None of you got to this moment today by accident.  You got here because you put in the work and people supported you along the way.  You dreamed big.  And you allowed yourself – even in those moments of uncertainty – to step outside of your comfort zone; to try something new; and to take risks.  As you make the transition from law student to practicing lawyer, let this ambition continue to guide you.  The progress I just mentioned, it didn’t happen by chance.  It happened in part because lawyers – people just like you and me – had the power to envision a more equal America.  And the problems I just described – they won’t get solved on their own.  Real change will only come from individuals with the capacity to imagine a brighter future and the ambition to make it a reality.  Each day, I have the honor and the privilege of working with the men and women at the U.S. Department of Justice, who have that ambition and who strive tirelessly to protect and advance civil rights for everyone in this country.

In the face of tough challenges and adverse conditions, ambition alone though won’t drive change.  You will also need to find the courage to lead.  With a law degree from this outstanding university in hand, you now hold a powerful tool to combat injustice and to serve your community.  When I speak of public service, I don’t mean only government work.  Because whether you work for the government or practice in a private firm; whether you represent low income clients or people with means; whether you rule from the bench or teach in the classroom – throughout your career, you will find yourself faced with an array of choices.  Choices between action and silence; between disrupting the world around you and defending the status quo; between conventional and creative strategies.  When you confront these choices – especially as you face pressure from others to keep quiet and to know your place – you won’t know how every decision will turn out.  But find the courage to stand up, to speak out and to advance the ideals of this profession: equality, justice and fairness for all.  Or as Congressman John Lewis likes to say, “get in the way.”

Of course, Minnesotans don’t need others to tell them about the value of courage.  You know this lesson firsthand.  From indigent defense, to same-sex marriage, to voting rights, time and again, this state – and its people – has chosen to fight for equality, to stand for fairness and to level the playing field.  

Roughly half a century ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, Florida Attorney General Richard Ervin wrote to his colleagues asking them to submit amicus briefs defending the state’s opposition to require the appointment of counsel for all indigent felony defendants.

Walter Mondale, then the Attorney General of Minnesota, chose a different path.  He got 23 states to join an amicus brief in support of Clarence Earl Gideon, an indigent man facing a felony charge without a lawyer.  As Attorney General Mondale wrote in a letter explaining his position to Ervin: “Nobody knows better than we do that rules of criminal law and procedure which baffle trained professionals can only overwhelm the uninitiated.”  And as a young, ambitious lawyer who became Attorney General at the age of 32, then Attorney General Mondale helped build the framework for a pivotal decision that gave real meaning to the concept of “right to counsel.”  His courageous actions helped entrench the promise of Gideon, a promise of equality, into our legal system – a promise that we, as a country, have an obligation to make real for all people.

Then Attorney General Mondale saw people “uninitiated” with the law on equal ground as powerful lawyers.  And through the legal profession, he found his calling to help the most vulnerable among us – to make the law not some special provenance of the wealthy, but a system that fairly protects the rights of all.  Today, Vice President Mondale’s impact continues to inspire – including scores of law students like you who attended law school in the building named in his honor.

 Lastly, as you find the ambition to dream and the courage to lead, I want to add one other piece of advice today: live kindly and treat people with compassion – in your personal life and in your career.  In all honesty, as the mother of two gorgeous 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 won’t always get it right, but you need to try.  You need to glance up from your screen every now and then and actually look into people’s eyes.  And if and when you choose a life partner, choose wisely – as I did with my husband.  With two young kids, I simply couldn’t do this job without his support, his partnership and his humor.  At the end of the day, people, not places or positions, make your work and your life enjoyable.

Plus, you can’t truly excel at your job without finding some semblance of balance, calm and happiness in your personal life.  As you launch your career, learn to bring compassion with you to the office, too.  Whether interacting with your colleagues, your clients or opposing counsel, treat people with respect, decency and empathy.  This might seem like it goes against the grain of what you think makes for an aggressive advocate, but trust me, being strategic and staying focused – while also treating people well – is the best way to solve big problems, drive real success and demonstrate great leadership.

I want to close with some words from one of my most favorite artists, a proud Minnesotan, a musical genius who left us far too early, Prince, who once said: “We ain’t got no time for excuses, the promised land belongs to all.”  Class of 2016 – may you find the ambition to never settle for excuses.  May you find the courage to make the promise of America’s laws a reality for all.  May you find the time to actually listen to those around you and treat them with kindness and compassion.  And through the legal profession, may you find not only a worthy career, but also a moral calling.  We’re counting on you.  Congratulations; I wish you all the very best of luck. 

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