Sally Quillian Yates

Commencement Address at University of Georgia School of Law - May 21, 2016

Sally Quillian Yates
May 21, 2016— University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
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Thank you, Hari, for your very kind introduction.

Dean [Peter] Rutledge, Provost [Pamela] Whitten, distinguished faculty, proud parents and family members, and most of all, to the remarkable 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 for me to be able to join you as you celebrate this turning point in your lives.

Now, at the risk of losing all credibility with you right out of the gate, I have to tell you that one of the reasons why I'm so thrilled to be here today is that I loved law school. More specifically, I loved law school here, at the University of Georgia. I loved the academic rigor here that really pushed me intellectually, challenged my assumptions and taught me a new way to think. I was nerdy enough to actually enjoy the research, the sparring in class when called on and even sort of picking apart those arcane principles of property law that I was convinced I would never need again. But the real reason I loved law school, the real reason that I have an emotional, not just academic, connection to this place, was because of the people – my classmates. I was lucky enough to go to law school with some of the brightest, most clever, fun, 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 recognize that I'm dating myself here, because that's back when we read cases from reporters in the law library. Rather, if someone were called on in class and they didn’t know the answer to the questions, rather than just sitting there smugly watching the prey wiggle, my classmates would surreptitiously try to whisper the answer, to help us all avoid humiliation whenever possible. That built a trust and camaraderie that has lasted my entire professional career. Some of my very best friends today are those I made in my first-year law section at the University of Georgia. And I think that that sets UGA apart from other law schools. Not only do you get a top notch education here that will take you wherever you want to go, you learn how to get there without being a jerk. You learn that somebody else’s failure is not your accomplishment. You learn that the way we treat one another as colleagues defines what kind of lawyer we're going to be far more than does our GPA.

Now, together as a class you all have celebrated Newport victories, you survived Professor [Erica] Hashimoto’s classes, which I understand can be kind of tough, and you got in touch with your irreverent side in sketches at the annual law revue – including, I am told, some pretty memorable impersonations of Professors [Michael] Wells and [Dan] Coenen and even Dean [Peter] Rutledge.

And you also came together in times of tragedy. A number of you lost parents and other loved ones during your time here in law school, and I know that their absence here today is particularly poignant. But when members of your class suffered these unfathomable 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. Now, this is kind of tricky territory, to be able to give advice without sounding insufferably pedantic, or even worse still, without actually being insufferably pedantic. And I may fail at both of those.

I know that the usual graduation advice is to tell you to look inside yourself, to find your inner passion and to follow that passion. 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. 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 the world. To reveal truth. To stand up for the voiceless. To hold our country to its promises. That degree that you’ve just earned – it doesn’t belong just to you. It belongs to the world. Because justice in our world requires lawyers. Whether it’s resolving a civil dispute, or ensuring that an individual who's criminally charged has his or her rights protected, 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 hold, 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 here rioted. The legislature tried to cut off funding to the University of Georgia to prevent their admittance. And Hunter and Holmes were jeered just about everywhere they went. In what was his first official speech, a 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; but that regardless of whether one agreed with it or not, it was the law of the land and his Justice Department was going to enforce it.

In concluding his remarks that day, 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 our history that are sharp inflection points reshaping our world. And if one of those moments occurs on your watch, I hope you seize that challenge to 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. Nor do laws always need to be repealed in order to transform 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 Americans all across our country.

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

Two years after I graduated from law school, I was working as a young associate at King & Spalding and I 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 is the most meaningful case of my 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 who was building a subdivision. The problem was that Ms. Morrison – mistrustful of the white court system – had not timely recorded her deed, instead carrying it tucked inside her dress every single day as she worked the fields.

By the time she did record the deed, there was already a conflicting survey on the books that the real estate developer was using to lay claim to her property. In the 1930s in rural Georgia, Ms. Morrison had good reason not to trust the court system. But in the late 1980s, that same court 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 – and that is adverse possession. Ms. Morrison’s family had made use of the land we were fighting over by washing their clothes in the stream and by cutting timber there for firewood.

The time came to try the case and I needed help. Even though I come from a family brimming with lawyers, not only had I never tried a case, I had never even seen a trial before. So, I went to the late Charlie Kirbo, who was known to take young lawyers under his wing, and to my great relief he agreed to help. From that moment on, Mr. Kirbo treated that case with the same determination and commitment that he would have treated the most significant matter for Coca Cola. The same man who had been known as President Carter’s one-man kitchen cabinet, who had counseled national and international leaders, walked the land with me, strategized with me and when the time came for trial, he 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 two African Americans in the courtroom. Batson did not yet apply to civil cases and opposing counsel struck all the African Americans from the jury. Many of the jurors personally knew the real estate developer, his lawyer, and the surveyor they were using as the expert witness. So all logic would tell you that our client didn’t have much of a chance of prevailing on an adverse possession claim in this kind of setting.

But a remarkable thing happened in that jury room. That group of 12 jurors – who went to church with the real estate developer, who used his lawyer as their own, whose surveyor had surveyed their own properties – that group of 12 jurors did the right thing. I wish that I could claim that their verdict was because of something I did, like a really inspirational closing or a blistering cross examination. But the truth of the matter is, the verdict was in spite of my novice performance, not because of it. Those 12 people were given an opportunity to do the right thing and they embraced it. And I don't think our client was the only one who left the courtroom that day with a newly found confidence in our justice system. I believe those jurors left with a real 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 just get to be a part of that and what a responsibility we have to safeguard that.

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

Not too long after that, 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 really expect to stay there long. I thought I would go there a few years, get some trial experience and then go back to the firm. I had never thought about being a prosecutor when I was in law school. Im fact, I didn’t even take a single advanced criminal law class, 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, of having the obligation and the responsibility to do what was fair and right and just every single day in every case, I couldn't imagine going back and representing any other client. I've 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 each of you will find a way during the course of your careers to meet that special charge that we have as lawyers. In fact, as you all have already heard about here this morning, many of you have already done that while you're 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 a recognition that being a lawyer means not just serving clients, but also serving society by fighting for those who need your help, who need your voice, who need you to stand next to them.

Recently the work of some of the students graduating here today intersected with my work in Washington. As you already heard a little bit about this morning and as some of you may already know, the Obama Administration has embarked on a clemency initiative designed to address disproportionately long sentences for those lower-level, non-violent drug offenders who were sentenced under outdated drug sentencing laws. As the deputy attorney general, I am charged with making a recommendation to President Obama on every one of those petitions. One such recent clemency petition was prepared by two of your graduates today, as you know, and made its way to the Justice Department and came to my desk. Steven Boyd was convicted in 1998 of selling crack and sentenced to life in prison. You should know he had absolutely no history of violence. He had no other criminal history other than a few small-time drug deals. And yet under the harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws in effect at the time, he was sentenced to life in prison. And in the federal system, that means life without the possibility of parole. As I mentioned, the petition came in, made its way to my desk, and then to the White House. And just three weeks ago, President Obama granted Mr. Boyd’s clemency petition. Mr. Boyd paid his debt to society after having served 18 years in prison. But as a result of your classmates’ hard work, Mr. Boyd has earned a second chance to not spend the rest of his life in prison. 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 again for the privilege of joining you today. And congratulations to the class of 2016.