Good afternoon Penn Law. How we doing? Thank you so much for that warm welcome, and for having me here today. Thank you also Willy, a truly proud Penn graduate, for that wonderful and warm introduction. And let me also thank you for your outstanding service to the American people. You are a true leader and champion, and when were U.S. Attorneys together, I can’t tell you how many times I looked to your example of service and community involvement as an inspiration for the things that all of us in the U.S. Attorney committee were charged with doing. Let me also share with you that, when it comes to revealing sources, I do have the ultimate subpoena power, and I will find out. I thank you that and I am so proud to call you a colleague, but even more proud to call you a true friend.
Let me also thank Ted Ruger for his kind words and for his outstanding leadership of this venerable institution and for the welcome that he has shown here today. He’s talking to me about his first year at Penn, and I have to say, even though we just met, his pride in this institution and his pride in all of you graduates, it is so strong. It came through so clearly. You are truly fortunate to have him as your dean, because he is living for this institution. I think I can say without reservation, that every graduate here, SJD LLM is in his heart as well.
To the faculty, the prizes that were awarded are emblematic of his commitment. Not just to service and teaching, but to the well-being of students and the faculty that the students, both JD and LLM think so highly of their faculty, to award them prizes with such glowing words and warm recommendations, speaks highly of the entire body of faculty here. So thank you all for welcoming me as well.
Of course, the family members and friends who’ve come to celebrate with the graduates, it is so wonderful to see you here. As has been said by one of our esteemed speakers, without your support, this event would not be happening. You send your loved ones to a venerable place of learning, and you hope that place will see in them, what you see. Their talent, their intellect, their beauty, their true heart, and you hope that place will nurture it, and will let them bring forth the best of themselves. This is a tremendous act of faith for you to do that. So for all the family members and friends, who are here today, let me salute you as well.
Of course, the class of 2016. The outstanding class of 2016, the JD graduates who bring back memories, I think for all of us in this wonderful profession of ours. Of that day when we first crossed the line from student to lawyer. As well as the LLM and SJD graduates as well. You all show that learning does not end, even as you go through this profession. So that’s actually a lesson for all of us. Class of 2016, I’m so proud of you as well.
This is the time to reflect on just how much you have to be proud of. Obviously you’re graduates of one of our nation’s finest universities, training minds both here and abroad to contribute to all walks of our legal profession. You have done so much to get to this moment. I’m sure if I had time you would tell me about the lectures, the papers, the study groups, the endless hours of preparation for the exams. Along the way, your abilities have been tested, your assumptions have been challenged, and exactly what has supposed to have happened to you has happened. Your view of the world has been expanded, it’s been refined, and it’s been enriched. I will tell you now what I hope you know, that you have likely learned as much from each other as you have from your professors. The study of the law is a wonderful thing, and to see it through another students eyes, can be as illuminating as the best lecture there is.
Now I also know your record outside the classroom is stellar. On-campus recruiting and spent summers at firms, government agencies and nonprofits. You have contended for the Keedy Cup, competed in moot competitions throughout the country, showing the world what Penn does to refine the grace and strength of its students. Now I understand there was a boxing match with Wharton? But you also edited and published five prestigious legal journals, including the nation’s oldest law review. And has been noted, most remarkably of all, every single one of you has completed 70 hours of pro bono work, and over 90 percent of you have done even more – this outstrips the practicing bar. This is a tribute to this class’s spirit of generosity, commitment to service and desire to make a difference. And as much as the refurbishment of the library, it is truly your gift to this institution, to the legal profession, and to all those who need your help whom you’ve found time to serve. As someone who has found profound fulfillment in public service, I thank you for that. I thank you so much for starting at this point in your career, with that connection to what makes this profession so wonderful.
I am so in awe of all of you. You represent this country and the world. Three years ago you came to Penn, representing 35 states, the District of Columbia and countries as near as Canada and as far as New Zealand. You brought with you a wide range of perspectives and your own incredible experiences. I am so impressed also to learn of what path you took before you came here. It’s a path that will never leave you. You were students and teachers, activists and advocates, entrepreneurs and executives. Your ranks include I’m told, a rabbi, a professional hockey player and a trapeze artist, and I can only hope that at some point, you did walk into a bar together.
You came here in the fall of 2013, which I know seems like just yesterday. You came as strangers, and today – after three years of studying, thinking, of writing, and arguing and even pumpkin-carving side by side – it’s clear, just from the interactions that I’ve seen today between all of you, and from your colleagues on this stage, that you’re leaving as friends, as colleagues and as partners in the law. You are entering a wonderful profession. It will call on your skills, your intellect, but most importantly it will call upon your heart as you contribute to its ranks.
In just a few moments, you will receive the degrees that you came here to earn. And in doing so, you will not merely be collecting a credential. You will be accepting a responsibility – a responsibility that is quite literally stamped on your diplomas, in the motto of this great university: “Laws without morals are in vain.” That motto is a reminder that, on their own, laws are simply instruments. Laws can be used to protect rights, or sadly they can be used to suppress them; they can nurture fairness or they can perpetuate inequality; they can shelter the interests of a privileged few or more gloriously, they can improve the welfare and well-being of all. And of course not just history but recent memory has stark reminders of times when the law has been used as an instrument of oppression. The law, our beautiful collection of laws, has been used to keep us down.
Here, in this country, our original sin was written into our founding documents as a matter of accepted fact. Jim Crow was more than a minstrel song – it was a system of laws specifically written to disenfranchise African Americans both politically and economically. Even today, we see attempts to legislate away, to strip way the protections so many people fought and died for – the right to vote, indeed even the need and the right to be free from discrimination itself. But one thing I want you to take away from the experience and this day, is the law is truly the instrument of the people. What tilts the scales one way or another are the morals and convictions of the people who create, interpret, execute and apply the laws – a group that now includes all of you.
Each of you can and has read statutes, each of you can and has applied cases and marshalled facts into a persuasive argument. No matter how you feel about stepping into the great unknown, know this, each of you can practice law. But the question for you now and throughout your career will be – can you hold justice in your hand. And wherever your path in this great profession of ours takes you – service to the judiciary or academic career, helping to structure our economy or standing in the arena of the courtroom, one of my favorite place – my wish for you, my charge to you, is that you do not just practice law, but find a way to hold justice in your hands.
Now for me, this has been the driving force of my own career. I’ve thought about this since I was young. In fact, it comes from a story my father told me one time when I was young, growing up in North Carolina. My father is a 4th generation minister in my family, my younger brother is a 5th generation, and his father before him, my grandfather was a 3rd generation. My father was telling me about my grandfather, who died when I was very very young. He lived in a farming community in Eastern North Carolina. My grandfather had a third grade education, he had 8 children and no money. He was a farmer, but he was a sharecropper, which meant he worked for someone else. There were times when my father and his older uncle and my grandfather would work and work and work, and the person who owned the land would decide not to pay them. He told me that story, and how my older uncle got so angry one time that he wanted to confront this man, and my grandfather and my father’s brother said, no we can’t do that because we need to work for him again. So they definitely were at the economic dependence of those land owners in the community, a power structure as it were at the time.
But my grandfather was not just a sharecropper, he was also a minister. He became a pillar of the community. He built a church right next to his house, called it Lynch’s Chapel – that’s what you do when you build your own church, you name it after yourself. Where he served not just my family, but his neighbors, and he earned their respect and regard, but most importantly, he earned their trust.
Now, as you can imagine, rural North Carolina in the 1930s was not the easiest place to be poor and black, but it was their place. But, on a dusty road in the dark of night, there was no rule of law. It didn’t take much if you got in trouble, to run a fowl of that system. All the rights you’ve studied, and now we take for granted as part of our system – the right to a speedy trial the right to a jury of your peers – these were just words on paper.
These were the days of Plessy v. Ferguson that was the precedent that guided this country at that time. Yes, in America. Martin Luther King Jr. was only a child; Ernesto Miranda wouldn’t be born for another 10 years; and Clarence Gideon wouldn’t petition the Supreme Court for another 30. With so much discrimination and fear in the air – and with little recourse to justice – the processes we take for granted as the birthright of every American, and the right of all who come here. In the 1930’s, many African Americans who ran afoul of the law decided that their only option was literally to leave. Because they could not be assured of the fundamental fairness of the documents written not so very far from here.
On several occasions, those people who made that decision, that difficult decision to leave town, did so with the help of my grandfather, their minister. Even though he was dependent on that power structure, to hire him, literally to put food on his table, and even though the law said that the people coming to him for help may have done wrong and deserved punishment – he would go out of his way to hide them and keep them beyond the law’s reach. Now of course, the other salient fact about a small rural community, of North Carolina in the 1930’s and frankly even now, everyone knows everybody. There were many times when my father would remember -- he was a young boy in the 30’s -- that the sheriff would come to the house and knock on his door and talk to my grandfather. His name was Augustus Claude Lynch, and he would call him Gus. He’d say, I’m looking for someone, have you seen him? And my grandfather would say, “Well, I haven’t seen him lately” – and my father and his siblings knew that so-and-so was actually hiding under the floorboards, or hiding in the closet, likely listening to this exchange. Now, when I heard the story when I was young, I would ask my father what he thought about it. And he would say, your grandfather was doing what he thought was right.
That left a profound impression on me. Because really, on one side you have a man of integrity, someone I love very much, my Grandfather – a man of God – who was in fact trying to do what most of us would recognize as the right thing, the just thing, but standing in direct opposition to the law. On the other side was the sheriff, who represented the law, but who certainly did not represent justice. Hearing about this at a young age made it clear to me that the presence of law does not always guarantee the presence of justice – that has to be fought for. That has to be earned, that has to be created, and managed, and nurtured, in the hearts and minds of those who’ve taken on that responsibility. In other words, by all of you. As it says, on your diplomas, laws without morals are in vain. What I took away from that story, was that each of us, every single one of us, whether we’re in this wonderful profession of ours, or some other, has an obligation to make justice real in this world however we can. As a prosecutor, I have continued to hold on to that purpose, to hold on to that calling, to try and listen to what my grandfather was saying, and what he saw. And to make real the promise of justice for those coming through our criminal justice system. My grandfather was willing to risk his livelihood and that of his family– and perhaps even his very life – for that ideal. How could I ever reach for less? All of us can practice law; but how can we hold justice in our hands?
Now of course, we have come a long way since the 1930s. Our laws protecting our civil rights, our environment, and the important principles of economic fairness represent the progression of this country. It’s a great progression. It’s a beautiful progression. We are the better for it. My father who is now 84 years old, has gone from a world that barely recognized his humanity, and certainly did not do so in a legal sense, to a world which his only daughter is the 83rd Attorney General of these United States. And yet there are still realms where, despite the indisputable progress we’ve made, we continue to fall short of our ideals. Now perhaps that is the human condition perhaps that is something in the human heart that means we always have to have something to strive for. It is of course said that man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s the heavens for? But we still have a condition in this country where far too many Americans continue to face discrimination based not only on being poor or being rural, but also on what they look like, where they come from, how they worship, whom they love or even something as profoundly personal and private as where they use a restroom. Our criminal justice system disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities, contributing to a stubborn and destructive cycle of poverty and incarceration. Fifty years after Gideon v. Wainwright, a person’s access to justice all too often still reflects the size of their bank account. We also see one of the cornerstones of the civil rights era – the Voting Rights Act – now faces renewed challenges.
Now all of these are challenges that the Department of Justice is taking on, every day. Through lawyers in Washington and throughout this country, through strong colleagues like Willy and others, I am so proud of the headway and the difference and the change, that this Department of Justice has made on these and so many other fronts, indeed this entire administration, is committed to holding justice in his hands. But these are not challenges that can or will be solved overnight. They will persist long after this administration has left office, and history tells us, they will cycle back again in our lives. So graduates, soon it will be your job to address these challenges, to build upon the work of those who have gone before you and to leave a better world for those who will follow you. That is your calling as lawyers, as those who have this profound responsibility for others. It is your responsibility as graduates of this institution, not just to practice law, but to hold justice in your hands. We, all of us here on this stage, welcome you to the profession and to the fight. We need you. We need your strength, we need your energy, we need your talent, we need your individuality, we need your background and we need your perspective, to lift up this noble profession of ours, in the most just cause of all.
Now of course you’re here, in one of the oldest and greatest cities in America. And so you know the history as well, that almost exactly a mile from here, at Independence Hall, our forebearers asserted that all men are created equal. In that same place, 11 years later, that they established a government designed to safeguard that basic but then revolutionary principle. Those of you who visited may know that only six men signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. One of them of course was James Wilson, who delivered the first law lectures in Penn’s history. Another was Ben Franklin, a well-known figure here on campus, because of course, when he wasn’t discovering electricity or deciding how to create the post office, established this wonderful place in which we all sit today. This institution of learning. He had a particular conception of what this institution would be. Even then, the University of Pennsylvania, was a trailblazer. Even then, you all were revolutionary because unlike other colleges and institutions of higher learning that primarily prepared people for the clergy, Franklin wanted Penn to be a place where idealism mingled with pragmatism. He always knew that the purpose of an education was to prepare people to live in the real world and uplift real people. He wanted Penn to be a place that trained engaged citizens, thoughtful public servants and dedicated civic leaders. He must have been reading all of your applications, because he has predicted all of you. He wanted Penn’s graduates to involve themselves in their communities and in their country – and to devote themselves to the hard work, the difficult work, the almost inconceivable work of what he and his colleagues began right here in Philadelphia.
Now of course, you have a great legacy. Because for so many years, Penn graduates have indeed lived up to this vision for the university and Franklin’s hopes for the country. Of course, you know the stories also. Caesar Augustus Rodney, I love that name. He was the most impressively named Attorney General of the United States—he was number six. He undertook the first defense of striking laborers in American history. The first defense. He lost that case, but he struck a blow for justice. Proving again that justice is not dependent on the result or verdict of the court room, but in making the law real for people who need redress from harm, who need their harms protected, and who need the coverage and the promise of equality, that was written down here so long ago.
And of course, Sadie T.M. Alexander, a personal hero of mine, the first black woman to receive a degree from Penn Law, the second African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in this country, and the first president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated – a sisterhood I would join many years later. She of course went on to work as a civil rights advisor to President Truman, serving on the committee that wrote “To Secure these Rights,” the landmark report that led to the desegregation of the federal work force and the military. Because, yes, there was a time when our own government reflected the thoughts and mores of an older generation, and did not reach out and was not inclusive. Proving again that we need you. We need your energy, we need your thoughts and your talents, to continue this progress, and to make sure that these doors stay open.
And of course, your own professor, Alan Lerner, received both his undergraduate and law degrees here at Penn and who served on the Penn Law faculty for 15 years. But, while still a student, traveled to Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer of 1964, literally risking his life to help black Americans win the right to vote.
All of them did exactly what Ben Franklin hoped they would do. They recognized that they had a role to play in the ongoing work of aligning our reality with our ideals. They lent their talent, their vision and their energy to the task of moving this country forward. They did what they could to hold justice in their hands and to fulfill the promise that was made just a mile from here – the promise of liberty, justice and equality for all. And you, all of you, now join their ranks.
Now, several hundred years ago, moments before the Constitution was signed, Benjamin Franklin offered the final known speech of his long and incomparable life. On that day in the late summer of 1787, he said, in response to how he voted, “I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults.” With all its faults. Franklin knew that the work of the Constitutional Convention, however miraculous, was far from perfect. But he had faith that the generations to come, he had faith that you would come and find a way to mend those faults, to make our union a little more perfect. And so far, we have done just that. We haven’t always gotten there as quickly as we want, but every day, we move this country just a little bit further down that road.
From Bunker Hill to Appomattox and from Seneca Falls to Selma; from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 19th Amendment and from the civil rights laws of the 1960s to Obergefell v. Hodges – we have won these and so many other victories only because people of good will and moral conviction refused to stand aside when there was more to be done. It was the courage and commitment of ordinary Americans who made all of these things possible, and all of them turned to the law to advance these goals. All of them turned to those who would try and help us hold justice in their hands. It is the story of our past. It is the guiding light of our present and the hope of our future.
And now graduates, that future is in your hands. Today, in just a short while, your tenure as students of the law comes to an end and your career as stewards of justice begins. The challenges before you are daunting, but I charge you approach them with purpose and principle – I charge you to seek to always to use the instruments of law with wisdom and resolve, I charge you to hold justice in your hands – and with all that you’ve achieved so far, I have no doubt that you will succeed. You will make our profession stronger. And I am certain that you will make our country stronger, more inclusive and more just.
I don’t know where your dark road will be, but we will all come upon one. I don’t know where your test will be, but we all have one, and I don’t know what your challenge will consist of, but it comes to every one of us, we don’t know the moment, we cannot choose the time, we don’t know the outcome, all we can do is hold to the tenants that we’ve learned in this great institution from your wonderful instructors, and what you’ve learned from all of your colleagues. That we’re stronger together, that moving forward is the only way, and that the goal of this country, the way to realize the promise of America, is to always strive to hold justice in our hands.
Thank you for letting me spend a few minutes on this, what I hope is one of the greatest days of your life. Thank you for letting me spend a few minutes talking to you about something that I hold dear and love more than life itself. And let me be among the first to welcome you to this wonderful profession of ours, I cannot wait to see what you will all achieve. Thank you so very much.
Speech from https://youtu.be/nX4gJJW2tH0?t=1h1m58s.