Dean Guzman, Dean Tolson, distinguished faculty members—and by the way, Christina and Chris, good job, yes [applause]—honored guests, parents, friends and most especially the 2023 graduating class of the USC Gould Law School—aloha!
Frankly, I am really happy to be here because what started off as a straightforward five-hour plane trip from Washington, D.C., to here last night turned out to be a 20-hour, two-day challenge. I know. But, I am here.
I'm honored to be here with you all today because USC was the only law school to which I applied, lo these many years ago, that did not accept me. [laughter and applause] So while it took you all three years to be at this moment, it has taken me 45 years to be on this campus. [applause] Oh well—we both made it, finally.
I want you to know that I stand before you today having obsessed, having obsessed for months about what I can say to all of you that would resonate with you. And while I am one of only 100 members of the United States Senate, that does not make me omniscient about what you all care about. So here goes.
Very little of my life has gone the way anyone would have predicted or expected. My story started on a little rice farm in a very rural part of Japan. My mother escaped an abusive marriage to my father and brought my older brother and me to Hawaii to create a better life for us. It took incredible courage for my mother to do this at a time in Japan when women did not take control over their lives in this way.
I was almost eight. I knew nothing about America. I knew nothing about Hawaii. We came in steerage on the President Cleveland. I spoke no English. We had one suitcase and our first home was one room in a rooming house.
Not speaking English, I had a number of “lost in translation” moments in school that were really embarrassing—survivable, but never to be forgotten, Even after all these years.
I'm sure many of you have had those moments when you wish the floor would just open up and swallow you up, right? Because if you haven't had those moments, you're just not paying enough attention to what's going on around you [laughter] and you're missing some of life's lessons, such as learning empathy.
Well, like many of you I overcame those embarrassing moments and won election to the United States Senate in 2012. For the sake of brevity, I will skip over the episodic first 32 years of elected office—I've been at this a long time—having run for election to the state's House of Representatives in 1980 when most of you weren't even born—wow.
When I first ran for the U.S Senate in 2012, I told a group of my supporters, “Look at the Senate. It doesn't have much diversity and I would bring quadruple diversity to the Senate. First of all, I'm a woman. I would be the first Asian woman ever to be elected to the U.S Senate if I won. [cheers and applause] I am an immigrant, currently the only immigrant serving in the United States Senate. [cheers and applause] And fourth, I am a Buddhist—the first and only Buddhist ever to be elected. [cheers and applause]”
I think religious diversity is important, too, so I'm the first Buddhist to be elected to the U.S. Senate. And somebody in the crowd yelled out, “Yeah, but are you gay?” And I said, “Nobody's perfect.” [laughter]
I can tell you—I'm sure you've noticed that the Senate still does not reflect the diversity of our country. We know, which is why Congress has enacted laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to advance equal opportunity in education for historically disadvantaged groups, and why colleges and universities like yours consider race as a factor in admissions decisions.
But today, many of the initiatives established to foster diversity are under attack.
One of the many critical cases before the U.S. Supreme Court is the affirmative action case against Harvard College and the University of North Carolina by a group called Students for Fair Admissions. Federal courts in Boston and North Carolina rejected the group's arguments and upheld the universities’ admissions policies to achieve a diverse student body.
This case is before this particular Supreme Court, as the plaintiffs intended from the very beginning. At oral arguments, which took an unprecedented five hours, the Court's six conservative justices leveled a barrage of criticisms at the Court's precedent, allowing consideration of race as well as Harvard College and North Carolina's processes in particular.
They asked, among other things, whether there is an educational benefit of diversity and how a school can know it has achieved sufficient diversity, because shouldn't there be an end to the use of race as a factor, as though at some point in our country we will have attained is aspiration of racial, economic, and social equality and therefore having a diverse student body need no longer concern us.
One justice opined that he didn't have a clue as to what diversity means. You might be able to guess who that justice is.
In my view, considering that we have a long way to go in our country toward racial equality, for these justices to focus on when colleges need no longer consider race as a factor in the admission process is short-sighted and detached from reality.
The Court's liberal justices emphasize that the schools considered race as just one factor in admissions.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson suggested that a scenario in which universities cannot consider race as part of their admission process while considering other factors like legacy status might itself violate the Constitution.
She described the hypothetical one person whose family has attended UNC for generations and another whose relatives in prior generations could not attend UNC because they were black. The first applicant, she said, would be able to have his family background considered and valued by the institution as part of his consideration of whether or not to admit him, Justice Jackson said. And while the second one wouldn't be able to, because his story is in many ways bound up with his race and with the race of his ancestors. Why, she asked, would such differential treatment be not its own violation of the equal protection clause?
Her questions point out why diversity on the Court and throughout the legal profession is so important. Justice Jackson's presence on the Supreme Court means that someone with her background and experience is making decisions that will better reflect the realities of our nation.
As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I've signed on to many amicus briefs, including on this affirmative action case. I have also been proud to help review nominees for lifetime appointments to the federal courts, including, to date, four Supreme Court nomination hearings.
The Kavanaugh hearings were very contentious. I had a high profile and the former president called me “vicious, nasty”—but considering the source—eh. [laughter and applause]
Well, needless to say, judicial nomination hearings are high stakes. Since the start of the Biden administration, we have confirmed 125 judges. Nearly three quarters are women [applause] and two-thirds are people of color [applause]—more diverse judges than ever in the history of our country. And their decisions will more fairly and objectively reflect how decisions will impact our diverse communities.
Why do I spend so much time going over a pending case before the United States Supreme Court, especially as you are graduating today and thought, at least for one day you don't have to hear about a case?
My friends, I'm here to tell you as lawyers, it never ends. And this affirmative action case will affect colleges throughout our country.
Concerning? You bet. But with your law degrees you can commit to becoming a fighter for change. This means you have to be a risk taker.
When my friend, now California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, was nominated to the Ninth Circuit by President Obama in 2011, he hit a firewall of opposition from Republicans united against him. He was a law professor at UC Berkeley, a Rhodes Scholar. He had clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He had written in support of women's rights, affirmative action, equal opportunities for poor people and minorities. He was characterized as an activist judge.
I have to say that's pretty ironic, concerning the kinds of judges Republicans were happy to support, including to the Supreme Court.
There were concerns about Goodwin, that this 40-year-old Asian-American law professor, sitting on a federal appeals court, would be well positioned to be on the Supreme Court. Think about that. They were right.
I'm here to tell you as, then Justice Liu in a commencement address in 2014, his story is not to caution you to be careful what you say, write or the positions you take because you want to keep your “options open.” That is an attitude for the faint of heart.
If you want to see change, be the change. You do not want your epitaph to be, “She played it safe.”
A law degree is a tool. If you want to use that tool to make a lot of money, more power to you. [laughter] I see you.
But I believe a law degree is a tool that can be used for justice, equality, civil rights. Because let's face it—right now, all the rights we thought we had won in voting rights, abortion rights, civil rights, worker’s rights—they are all being challenged. Our rights, freedoms, and democracy are at risk.
And this is a good time to have a law degree—a tool for the greater good.
My alma mater, Georgetown Law's, motto is “Law is but the means—Justice is the end.” I couldn't agree more.
We in the political arena get criticized a lot by the media and others, so I carry the words of President Theodore Roosevelt with me. I did change one pronoun. President Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts, not the woman who points out how a strong woman stumbles, aware the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcomings but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”
There's more but you get the idea. In a shorter vernacular version—just do it! [applause]
I am so proud of each of you. I was where you were lo these many years ago, and the desire to use my education, my degree for the greater good has never left me. My very best in the challenges ahead of you. Mahalo and aloha! [applause]
USC Gould School of Law. “USC Gould School of Law 2023 Commencement Ceremony (JD).” YouTube video, 1:45:30. May 12, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTjahzZPghE