You are here

Justice News

Remarks Of The Honorable David J. Hickton United States Attorney For The Western District Of Pennsylvania Commencement Address University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law Class Of 2011
United States
Friday, May 13, 2011

Thank you.

It is a special honor to be invited to address you today. Each of you has now achieved the important and distinctive title of “graduate of The University of Pittsburgh School of Law” and “lawyer”. There is no more noble profession than a career in the law. Regardless of how you apply your degrees, you are now sentinels in our system of laws and government and archangels of justice.

Thirty years ago, I sat where you are sitting today. I was a member of the Class of 1981. Your Class President, Sam Hornak, is the son of my fellow classmate and friend, Mark Hornak. We were part of a great class, and I am happy others from that class and that era have joined us today. Mark is one of the greatest students ever in the history of this law school. Like the first baseman in baseball who records three putouts in one inning, he did something in one semester which can only be equaled –not surpassed. He received an A+ in all four subjects!! Our friend, the Honorable Judge Phil Ignelzi, Sam Hornak’s Godfather, and Mark produced a contracts outline which is still legend in American law school lore. I have been pleased to know Sam Hornak his entire life. Sam is exceptional; he gives me great confidence in the future. Like all of you who are sharing this achievement today, Sam is the pride and joy of his family and parents and, in Sam’s case, especially my dear friends, Grandma Hornak and Grandma Meyer. I ask that you recognize them and all of the families here today.

It is hard to believe that 30 years has passed since our law school graduation. I thought you might be amused to hear a review of some of the events of that day and appreciate how things have changed and how they have remained the same.

In 1981, we celebrated the first launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Today, the Shuttle program is ending. In the Spring, we celebrated a Royal Wedding between Charles and Diana, and, of course, we just had the Royal Wedding of William and Kate. Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed as the first woman to the United States Supreme Court in 1981. This past term, Associate Justice Elena Kagan joined Sonia Sotomayor as the second of President Obama’s nominations to the Supreme Court, doubling the total number of women justices to 4 out of 111 in our history. In 1981, Egypt was in turmoil with the assassination of Anwar Sadat and the elevation of his replacement, Hosni Mubarak, who, of course, stepped down earlier this year. The Internet was first mentioned with the application of an MSDOS operating system which seemed like space age then and which seems like stage coach today. In 1981, Muhammad Ali retired. Brittany Spears, Justin Timberlake and Serena Williams were born–just to name a few. General Omar Bradley, Commander of the forces at D-Day, Heavyweight Boxing Champion Joe Louis and Bob Marley were among the notables to die.

Gas was $1.25 a gallon. Inflation was 10.35%, interest rates were a staggering 15.75% and the Dow was a whopping 875!

The passage of time is the only real sure thing in life, and everyone will tell you how fast time goes by. It accelerates with each milestone in your life. In 1981, I did not dare to believe that I might be the United States Attorney or that I would have the privilege of standing before you on this occasion. I do remember vividly our Class’s shared sense of purpose and accomplishment. I knew some of us would have great opportunity to make real and meaningful contributions. We were proud and happy for each other, and we felt a collective responsibility to our profession. I hope your Class feels that way today.

For lawyers, the principles of freedom and justice prevail above all others as the brightest stars in the sky.

Freedom means liberty–the ability to make choices and the right of selfdetermination. It creates opportunity and empowerment. Freedom involves the absence of restraint, although not necessarily the absence of reasonable restrictions.

Justice means fairness and equity. It implies a righteous conformity to principle or a code of conduct. It signifies attention to substance and process.

The principles of freedom and justice unify people of all backgrounds. No matter your ethnic, cultural, religious or political background or persuasion, odds are that you are a champion of freedom and justice. Individuals and nations may differ in their orientation or approaches to behavior or governance, and some misuse tribute to freedom and justice as a basis for oppression. But freedom and justice, as defined, are core principles for all.

In America, in our founding documents and in our National Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance, we live for liberty and justice for all. The promises of our Freedoms of Religion, Speech, Debate and Assembly can only be assured if we provide justice. So freedom and justice are interdependent. Each is vital; both essential and you cannot have one without the other.

How are freedom and justice applied every day in the practice of law and how do they apply as I do my job as United States Attorney? The answer is with fidelity and with vigilance.

Everything I do every day is with a view towards advancing freedom and justice. The United States Attorney protects the public welfare through the enforcement of Federal criminal and civil laws, applying resources efficiently and effectively by establishing good priorities and good judgment. Simply put, we offer justice to ensure freedom.

Today’s challenges require capable and adept professionals at all levels of law enforcement. I am grateful to work with some of the best people I have ever met in our Office; in the Department of Justice and in our National, state and local law enforcement partners.

The biggest change in Federal law enforcement is the focus on prevention and deterrence of criminals, including terrorists, since 9-11. For example, after the Oklahoma City bombing of the Federal Building in 1995, the task was to find the criminals and prosecute and punish them. After 9-11, all of law enforcement is dedicated to preventing future attacks upon us. We are very active in that effort, which was not a priority in the U.S. Attorney’s Office when I graduated.

The threat we face has evolved and metastasized since 9-11. We have had to contend with the “underwear bomber” who attempted to detonate a bomb on a plane with over 289 passengers as it was landing in Detroit. We frustrated a plot to bomb a Christmas tree lighting in downtown Portland, Oregon. You have seen the press reports of terror plots which have been disrupted in Times Square in New York; Maryland; Virginia; Texas and other locations around the Country. These threats were successfully intercepted by a capable and dedicated National Security apparatus, working in cooperation with the FBI and other law enforcement partners and the United States Attorney’s Offices in every state in our Nation.

We have not been immune to the threat of terror. The public record reflects a case that involves a local young man whose internet postings express a desire to be a martyr and kill school children and other targets here in Western Pennsylvania. Evidence in support of his detention included his statement that he was going to “make Waco look like a tea party.” He is presently charged with assault upon Federal officers and use of a firearm in the commission of a violent crime.

There have been other incidents here and around the Country. I do not intend to alarm you, but the threat is grave and everevolving. Perhaps the best measure of our work in this area is how little you hear about much of it. Rest assured that this is true: the threats are real, widely dispersed and technologically sophisticated. It is also true that the people protecting our Country are skilled, committed and very effective. We have dedicated our Office to confronting threats to our national security and infrastructure.

The biggest similarity in law enforcement since I graduated is the continued necessity for the active enforcement of our Civil Rights laws. If one of us is discriminated against for any reason, we are all at risk. I repeat if ONE of us is the subject of discrimination, we are all under assault.

Freedom from discrimination is fundamental to our American existence and justice must be brought to secure it.

We have created a Civil Rights Group in our office to revitalize the effort to ensure equal protection of the laws for all Americans. Already, I have signed an indictment relating to a cross-burning in this District, and we have secured pleas by several Defendants. One would think in 2011 that such a despicable symbol of hatred and bigotry would not be in use, but the sad fact is otherwise. Trampling upon the Civil Rights of any American for any reason will not be tolerated. We are working every day to protect all of us by making sure the promises of freedom and democracy are not denied to any Americans because of their race, gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation or any other illegal subject classification.

Of specific interest in 2011 are the Civil Rights deprivations and hate crimes which are being suffered by Muslim Americans. Unfortunately, the War on Terror has led to discrimination against Muslim Americans by some who have drawn the uninformed and incorrect conclusion that all Muslims are terrorists and that they and their religion are a threat to our Country. One would think that we would have learned from the unconscionable internment of Japanese- Americans during World War II.

Heroic Muslim Americans are fighting and dying in our armed services in Iraq and Afghanistan. Muslim Americans serve in important positions in our National, State and Local governments. Muslim Americans contribute to our communities.

The first principle of this Nation’s birth is religious freedom, yet in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 until today, Muslim Americans are experiencing systematic civil rights deprivations and intolerance.

Lawyers, as core leaders in our Nation’s system of laws, must stand courageously against this outrage. No one–especially in the United States of America–should be discriminated against for their faith or any other reason.

Beyond our moral and legal obligation to ensure the promise of freedom for Muslim Americans, there is the reality that hostility toward our Muslim community fuels radicalization and facilitates the evolution of home-grown terrorists. Stigmatizing Muslim communities makes it easier for Al Qaeda to radicalize and recruit Americans.

Some say our National Security interests cannot be assured if we do not treat Muslims with suspicion; and, that, at this time, Civil Rights must yield to our safety. This is a false choice. The diversity of terrorist threats makes a single-minded focus on Muslim radicalization short-sighted and incomplete. Our focus should be on radicalized individuals, not entire communities.

There is an interesting and disturbing convergence between our National Security work and our Civil Rights work, and that is in the area of domestic terrorists.

We have seen in the last two years the rise of the White Supremacists, the Aryan Brotherhood and the resurgence of the Sovereign State Movement. In addition, anarchists and single-issue terrorists, as well as violent motorcycle gangs, have become more active and violent.

These gangs are “equal opportunity bigots”–they hate minorities with the same fervor that they resent and attack authorities or your Government.

Approximately 250 police officers have been murdered nationwide over the last two years and many of these hate groups are proudly keeping a head count. One of the most egregious examples of this was here in April 2009 when a man whose internet rants reflected hatred towards Jews and African-Americans murdered three Pittsburgh police officers in cold blood.

In prior public appearances, I have appealed to reasonable Americans to help tamp down the fervor of our public debate. We cannot engage in vitriolic attacks upon Government and institutions without consequences.

I am not for one second suggesting that we limit Freedom of Speech or Debate. To the contrary, I urge all to join and enhance the debate. What I am saying is that hate speech against government and law enforcement has no constructive role in our discourse.

Throughout your life experiences, there are certain immutable principles. Truth, Love, Faith and Family are examples of some. There are also recommended rules of the road which any commencement speaker worth his cap and gown would offer to you, and I do not want to disappoint. I thought I might focus upon a few suggestions for you and your friends and family. These observations are from the lens of someone with your shared education background, and based upon my own life experiences. I give thanks every day for all my experiences–good and bad–as each is a vital link and connection to who I am and who I strive to be. I humbly offer these suggestions to you for your consideration.

First–Be Spiritual. I mean this in a nonsectarian, non-denominational way. It means that you must recognize the spirituality in everything you do–however you define that. In simple terms, appreciate that the importance of your life’s work, especially your legal work, is best reflected in the understanding that your toil is bigger than you. The importance of your work is great, but your power over legal outcomes is limited. Therefore, your devout attention to the execution of your craft and daily activities with soul and spirit is the best you can do and all you should do.

Second–Be a Net Contributor. Give in greater proportion to what you take. Do not look at each opportunity selfishly. Look instead to how you can contribute the principles of freedom and justice to the equation. In all of your interpersonal relationships, be kind and giving. More than one important person in my life has candidly shared with me that the best indication of evaluating people is how they treat others–particularly, how they treat subordinates and staff and people with less power or influence. I have used this test often. For some reason, many lawyers get this badly wrong–they become full of themselves or think that each interaction is a measure of their power and worth. If you are selfish and unkind, you will fail. If you treat people with respect, and you are generous and sincere in your interest and concern for others, you will succeed. In addition, you will be happier; you will be more effective, and you will be better for it.

Third–This is not a dress rehearsal–live for the fierce urgency of now. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1963 uttered many memorable lines. None resonates more with me than his reminding Americans and those present at the March of the “fierce urgency of now”. Dr. King so eloquently stated that day at the Lincoln Memorial:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

In addition to the uncertainties of life and the short time we all have here, if freedom and justice are important, there is no time for delay. When we prosecute crimes, we avenge the harm to victims; we protect the public welfare, and we deter others from committing crimes. This is urgent work. When we focus upon National and cyber security or upon Civil Rights and child exploitation or violent community crime or public corruption, we need to vindicate the public interest with dispatch. Your good work as lawyers will be important and urgent. Treat it with the importance it deserves.

In your own lives and careers, I urge you to develop a plan and take ownership of it. Your plan for your career is important and urgent. This does not mean a script–one can never plan for a particular path or job, but find a career which moves you and get after it–now.

Fourth–Pay attention to the big issues and the small details. In all matters, especially in your legal career, keep your eye on the big issues and the small details. I find it fascinating that the late General George Patton, a great military leader and John Wooden, the Coach of UCLA basketball who won 10 NCAA championships, both supreme leaders and strategists, were obsessed with attention to the condition of the feet of their men. Coach Wooden spent the first practice every year attending to the shoes and socks of his players. General Patton left letters of instruction for Unit Commanders about the importance of properly fitted shoes and the danger of loose and tight socks. The greatest strategy can be foiled by inattention to small and critical details. Strive to do great things. Dream big. Let your reach exceed your grasp. But, in the matters at hand, be vigilant about your product and performance. Never lose track of the specific facts at hand. Be a dreamer about your future; but be a craftsman about your work. Plan the big strategy boldly; but obsess about the tactics and details.

Fifth–Strive to be Excellent. The ancient Greeks had a word for excellence and virtue. That word is “areté”. Translated, “areté” means be all you can be or achieve your highest potential. It means excellence and virtue combined. It suggests all of the qualities of supreme humanity. It was to reflect the highest level of human ability and happiness. President Kennedy said 50 years ago that happiness is defined as applying your God-given talents along lines of excellence. I urge you to strive to be excellent in all you do and to be the best lawyer you can be. The difference between good and excellent is worth it; your clients deserve it, and our legal system requires it.

Sixth–Life is Short. Be Happy. Let it Go. Throughout your life, you will face success and failure, happiness and disappointment and your fortunes will rise and fall. People will amaze you, and they will let you down. With added responsibilities of family and children, your resiliency will be tested. A long time ago, when I was struggling with a life drama which seemed overwhelming at the time, a close friend of mine, whose friendship and counsel I value greatly, offered me the simple credo of “Life is short; be happy; let it go”. The drama passed, and I learned the important lesson of appreciating the line between what you have control over and what you do not. I have never forgotten that lesson. Invest your energy and time in the matters and concerns which you can impact and properly influence, and let the other issues go. Do not waste your energy carrying around the concerns of the past. Live productively in the present. This suggestion is my graduation gift to all of you–live it; use it; share it.

Finally, I want to salute all of you graduates. In your eyes, I see the hope for our shared future. I sense your commitment. You understand the challenges we face. Your generation will help stop worldwide terror. You will help us find safe and secure energy sources which can make us independent. You will help continue the progress in our important scientific and medical advances. I believe you will advance freedom and justice in our legal system. I am convinced that you are part of a uniquely capable and socially conscious generation of Americans, and that you will use your skill, training and energy to be good citizens and lead the World.

The greatest gift of the freedom and justice of American democracy is the fount of opportunity before you–never more clear than on this great day. Use your opportunity–do not squander it. Share your freedom. Be about justice, and always remember our promise is for liberty and justice–not just for some–but for all.

Thank you.

Updated July 14, 2015