Ketanji Brown Jackson

Commencement Address at Boston University School of Law - May 21, 2023

Ketanji Brown Jackson
May 21, 2023— Boston, Massachusetts
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Good morning. Thank you for that very kind and generous introduction, Dean Onwuachi-Willig, and for inviting me to be here with all of you to celebrate this truly momentous occasion.

To the class of 2023, congratulations on this magnificent achievement! [applause]

And to the family members and friends who have encouraged these graduates and have helped them to get to where they are today, congratulations to you as well! [applause]

As I traveled here from Washington, D.C., yesterday evening, I started to think about the moment a couple of years ago when Dean Onwuachi-Willig reached out to me and asked me to deliver this commencement address.

First of all, let me just acknowledge that I don't know the dean but I immediately felt a certain kinship. She explained to me that although she'd been a scholar for a while she was relatively new as the dean of this fine institution and she wanted to make a good impression [laughter].

She said that she thought that bringing me to campus as a recently appointed circuit judge would be a good thing for the law school, and I remember thinking how surprised I was that anyone thought to reach out to me. I was very flattered because I'd been a district judge for about seven years at that point and I'd never been asked to give a commencement address before, and I was just getting used to my new role as an appellate judge on the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit after having toiled for a considerable amount of time in relative obscurity.

Now I should note that in the District of Columbia, the federal trial court and the U.S Court of Appeals sit in the same courthouse and with my elevation to the Circuit I wasn't really focused on traveling or giving speeches. Instead, I was learning new routines, among them trying to train myself not to automatically push the elevator button for my old floor out of force of habit and mindlessly walking into my old chambers—which I have to say is not as easy as it seems.

I was also learning how to engage in collaborative decision-making as a member of a three-judge panel—also not easy—and was just starting to get used to reviewing case records and the rulings of district judges like my former self.

Fast forward to today and it seems as though your dean was quite prescient with her invitation. [laughter and applause]

I am now in another new role, this time in a whole new building, working as part of a nine-member body—speaking of the challenges of collaborative decision-making—and I'm reviewing the decisions of district and appellate courts across the country. And as you can imagine, this is actually a very busy time of year for the Supreme Court, so I suppose I could have used the newness of my position as an excuse for not following through with my promise to give today's address.

But Dean Onwuachi-Willig had been so incredibly warm and welcoming, I thought it best to honor my commitment and I'm delighted to be here with you to share some of my experiences. [applause]

Now let me start by telling you that my professional story is truly Exhibit A of how quickly things can change and how adaptation is one of the keys to success, which you will all soon discover as graduates of this fine institution. After you leave this wonderful university, you will embark on a new career path; maybe move to a new city; meet new colleagues, mentors and friends; and be asked to do new things, doing unfamiliar tasks using the skills that you've learned in law school.

Change is exciting, and being a lawyer can be one of the most thrilling jobs there is but take it from me—change in the legal profession can also be a lot.

I have found that when I'm in unfamiliar surroundings, facing new and daunting challenges, one of the things I do is to focus on the constants, the things outside the law that form a central part of my life and that bring me joy.

And you should do the same. It could be a hobby, a sport, a talent—really anything that motivates and inspires you.

And for me, that constant outside thing, in addition to my wonderful family, has always been the performing arts and especially musical theater.

My husband and I have moved around a lot in the years following my graduation from law school, but in each new place we lived I always knew where the theaters were and what performances were scheduled.

The theater has been something that has both grounded and excited me since I was cast in the incomparable role of the wicked witch of the west in an elementary school production at age seven and I got to sing and cackle and melt in enviably dramatic fashion.

My interest in musical theater only accelerated and expanded during my time in high school when my mother became the principal of a magnet art school in our South Florida community and my parents and I got to be regular attendees at truly professional-grade performances.

Just as many people go to the movies, going to the theater is a creative escape for me and lets me spend time in a different world and I always leave refreshed and with new ideas. So I view theater as something of a lifeline, a familiar activity that I love and that I always try to make time for even when I have new job responsibilities that involve quite stressful circumstances.

Now you're probably thinking, well that's nice but what does this have to do with law school graduation?

Let me tell you. I've come to realize over the course of my professional career that the arts and musical theater in particular can teach valuable lessons about all sorts of things, including how to interact with others and how to achieve your goals. And I also think those lessons translate quite well into the legal realm.

So rather than trying to impart some general wisdom about the state of the law today or how best to be a lawyer, I thought it might be fun to share some of the lessons I've learned from three musicals that have helped me in my own life and career. My goal here is to give you a taste of three different shows that I have a personal connection to in some way, each with its own lesson that I hope you'll carry with you after you leave here today.

Now the first show actually brings back fond memories of my own time here in this area as a college student just across the river—and please do forgive me for that. [laughter] It is Howard Ashman's “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Now—a little clapping for “Little Shop of Horrors”—now you might have heard a fair amount about me over the past year while I was going through the Supreme Court confirmation process, but something that did not come up at the hearing, surprisingly, is that when I was 18 years old I considered myself to be an actress.

As a first-year student in college, I remember initially feeling so out of place. Dean Onwuachi-Willig mentioned the story of my early days on campus and that was all true, including my feelings of isolation and discouragement. And as I've mentioned, when I'm in a new and different set of circumstances, I cling to the familiar, so even though I didn't expect to be cast I tried out for the Hasty Pudding show that year and I got a part.

Now, for those of you who know “Little Shop of Horrors,” I was Ronette, one of the chorus of doo-wop girls and I suddenly had the campus community that I longed for—which incidentally included well-known comedian Mo Rocca, who was one of the leads in that show.

And even more important for present purposes, I learned something from participating in that particular production that I've carried with me to this day. So before I tell you what that is, let me set the scene briefly by giving you a little background of the show. Now, I could hum a few bars from my role but I will spare you that and just describe the scene.

“Little Shop of Horrors” is about a man named Seymour who works in a flower shop. One day there is an unusual solar eclipse and Seymour discovers this exotic and beautiful plant tucked away among the flowers. The plant is absolutely extraordinary. It can talk, it can sing and it starts bringing Seymour quite a bit of attention and fame.

But Seymour soon discovers that the plant is not only special, it is needy and also demanding. And he realizes that the only way to keep it alive is to feed it human flesh and blood.

Now for some reason, instead of walking away or throwing it in the trash, Seymour unthinkingly continues to feed the plant and so the plant grows. It gets larger and larger and increasingly more vocal and with every rousing choral number, an increasing number of people end up becoming casualties.

As the play progresses, the audience learns that the plant's goal the whole time has been to grow sufficiently powerful to take over the world. But by the time Seymour realizes this in one of the last scenes of the play, it's far too late.

So why am I highlighting this particular show? What is the lesson? Some of you might be thinking that I'm going to suggest that the legal profession is like a dangerous plant [laughter] in that if you aren't careful it will eat you up, but no, that's not it.

Instead the lesson, I draw from the show and what I want you to remember as you practice, is to always start by asking “why?” when you confront a new situation.

In the show, it was not until the very end that Seymour paused to think about why the plant was asking for what it did. Until that point, he never took a step back to consider what was going on, nor did he try to make any sense of the situation he was in. And had he done so, he might have approached the plant with clearer eyes and been able to intervene while there was still time.

My takeaway is that you have to understand what you're dealing with and why something is the way it is, or you'll often find yourself on your back foot.

In my experience, asking why can be a very instructive thing in the law.

In my current job, for instance, I'm often tasked with interpreting a statute. And I start with the text, of course, but as part of the interpretive exercise I also think about why Congress wrote the statute in the way that it did. To truly understand a provision of law, I try to ascertain its purpose—what problem was Congress trying to solve.

And asking why can also be helpful in practical ways as well. Say a partner at a law firm asks you to draft up a contract for a client in a very specific way. Asking yourself why the partner or client wants it done in that way will help you to understand which details are important and then you can figure out which points to prioritize in order to do the assignment in the way the partner expects.

Asking yourself why can also make a difference in your relationships with your colleagues and opposing counsel. It can help you better understand their motivations and concerns, as well as your own. And once you make sense of a given situation, it's a lot easier to determine the next steps that you will take.

Musical number two. The second musical I want to discuss is one of the most popular and successful modern musicals of all time. And because you've studied law, you might be familiar with it. Yes, I'm talking about “Hamilton.”

When it opened, “Hamilton” was such a game changer that theater buffs like me can still remember where they were when they first got wind of Lin-Manuel Miranda's path-breaking work. It really is that kind of show. And I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful husband who had the foresight to get early tickets for our anniversary and I got to see it on Broadway with the original cast.

“Hamilton”—yes, people are like ohhh [laughing]—”Hamilton” is a lyrical opera that tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton through hip-hop and other musical genres, and it is both unique and visionary when it opened in part because of its extremely diverse cast. And boy was it popular. That show almost single-handedly ignited renewed interest in the performing arts nationwide among people from all different backgrounds.

Now as a point of personal privilege, I will tell you that “Hamilton” was so near and dear to my heart when it first opened that I decided to cite it in one of my legal opinions during my third year on the bench. I am told that I am one of if not the first judges in the country to do so. I quoted a line from a song called “The Room Where it Happens” to explain the principle of Article III standing, which as graduates here today know, requires a plaintiff to have a personal stake in the outcome of a case in order to be able to sue.

In the song, Hamilton says when you got skin in the game you stay in the game, but you don't get a win unless you play in the game. See what I did there? [laughter] I thought it was very clever. Anyway, that song, “The Room Where it Happens,” is both one of my favorite numbers in the show and the lesson from that musical that I want to share with you today.

This particular song tells the story of how Alexander Hamilton, who served as the first treasury secretary after helping to create that department, was able to execute his financial vision for the country by literally getting himself into a room with Jefferson and Madison and brokering a deal.

In the song, Aaron Burr then comes along and expresses dismay as to how foundational decisions were being made in such closed-door sessions without input from others and especially him. But by the end of the song, Burr realizes that if he really cares about something and if he really wants to have a say that he needs to do whatever it takes to get himself a seat at the table and help to make a change.

Looking back, that basic principle is what drove me to some of the most significant steps in my career.

To give one example, when I was a young lawyer I was working as a staffer at the United States Sentencing Commission in a legislative drafting and policy-making role. Day after day, I would see statistics about how certain crimes were being handled by judges at sentencing and the ways in which various disparities had infiltrated the system sentencing system. I wanted to help move sentencing policy in a more equitable direction but I realized that I lacked the necessary understanding of how criminal law and criminal procedure worked on the ground.

So I decided to do something about it. I applied for a job as an appellate public defender where I represented clients from all walks of life who were appealing sentences for all sorts of crimes. And through that experience, I gained the skills I needed to understand firsthand how the criminal justice system really works. So when I was fortunate enough a few years later to return to the Sentencing Commission as a vice chair, I had the tools I needed to really grasp the issues at stake and to help make a difference.

My advice for you is when an issue arises that you care deeply about, whether it's in your local community or society more broadly or even just within your specific workplace, don't sit back and take a passive role. Do something about it.

If you're working at a law firm and you care about tenants’ rights, for instance, find a way to get involved in local housing organizations. Figure out whether your firm has pro bono cases dealing with housing litigation and ask to be assigned to those matters. And if your firm doesn't already have cases in that area, figure out which people you need to talk to in order to help expand your firm's pro bono practice.

And you can take this approach even with respect to opportunities outside your firm or public interest workplace. If you want to enhance the opportunities for young lawyers in your state or call attention to some issue area that you think is currently being ignored, join your state's bar young lawyers committee. Look for leadership opportunities that you can take, and take advantage of the networks and connections you have and that you've already started building over these past few years.

As my old boss, Justice Stephen Breyer, used to say, we live in a country that depends on active civic participation. A functioning democracy relies on citizens thinking about how best to solve problems and putting their plans into effect. So find something you care about and get yourself into the room where it happens.

Musical number three. The third and final musical I want to talk about is a new one called “American Prophet: Frederick Douglass in His Own Words.” This musical premiered at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., this past summer and I got to attend opening night. And because the show really is that good, I went to see it again a few weeks later, bringing my law clerks and staff.

As the title suggests, the musical is about the life and times of Frederick Douglass, the famed orator and abolitionist who was born enslaved. The show provides the audience with insight into Douglass’ early life, the people and moments that helped him to become one of the country's most famous and impactful figures, and how his messages and admonitions still ring true today.

As the title also suggests, the musical is crafted around Frederick Douglass' actual words. He was a prolific writer, and the primary playwright, Charles Randolph Wright, weaves Frederick Douglass' actual writings and speeches into conversations between the characters, asides between Frederick Douglass and the audience, and the musical numbers themselves.

And one of the most interesting parts of the musical—which the director pointed out to me—is that certain phrases are repeated throughout the show but communicated in different formats or contexts, each time resonating with the audience in a distinct or a deeper way. So you might hear one phrase in a speech then in a conversation then in a song and then in a reprised version of that song and by the end, you really get it in a nuanced, complex, and meaningful way.

There are many lessons that one can draw from this musical, but the one I wanted to highlight today is that words matter and that the framing does, too. It's not just what you say that leaves an impact—it's also how you say it and how you get your message through to the people you are trying to convince.

When I was a district judge, one of the hardest but most important tasks that I had was to sentence defendants who had been convicted of crimes. People often think of sentencing as a moment where a judge simply decides how many years a person should spend in prison, for example, and then announces that sentence in open court.

But it is so much more than that. It takes a lot of preparation and review in order to be ready to sentence, and during a sentencing hearing the judge has a unique opportunity to address the defendant directly and to explain exactly why their behavior was problematic, how their actions hurt people in the community, and why it is so important that they use their time in prison to turn their lives around.

In that circumstance it became quite clear to me that words matter from the standpoint of promoting rehabilitation. I had to communicate clearly and effectively to the defendant, which I worked very hard to do.

The ability to communicate effectively is an absolutely critical skill in the law, and it is one that you all have now been trained to do throughout your time at this great institution. Whether you choose to be a litigator a corporate lawyer, a professor or a policymaker, your ability to use your words to make your case will serve you quite well, even from your first day on the job.

Be intentional about the words you choose and if you figure out a way to make your points in different ways, do so. It will increase your chance of persuading the person you want to persuade and ultimately, the more you can persuade people, the more of a meaningful difference you can make.

I will end by circling back to “Hamilton” for just a moment, because there's one other song from that musical that I want to mention.

One of the most searing ballads in the show, one that is repeated throughout that production, is is called “History Has Its Eyes on You.” It is probably my favorite tune from a show that is filled with extraordinary numbers and given my own experience over the past year, I think it's pretty obvious why that particular song resonates with me.

What I want you to think about is the fact that I was sitting where you are, graduating from law school and excited about the future not all that long ago. And I could not possibly have predicted that my professional path would lead to where I am today.

The takeaway message for all of you is that anything is possible. As graduates of Boston University Law School, you are well-equipped to go out into the community in whatever capacity you choose and to make momentous contributions. Thanks to your professors, your peers and the hard work that you have done up to this point, you know how to think critically and argue persuasively, and you are fully prepared to join the legions of other lawyers across the country who are doing the work of promoting the rule of law and modeling civil interactions throughout this challenging time.

So I say to you again—when you find yourself in unfamiliar situations, taking on new responsibilities, perhaps under challenging circumstances, find a way to do that thing outside of the law that grounds you whether, it's ultimate frisbee or painting or going to the theater.

And with respect to the work, make sure that you ask “why?” Put yourself in a position to engage as fully as you possibly can, and remember that words matter and that the framing of issues does, too.

With these things in mind you can better identify problems, make plans to do something about them, and bring about change in the most effective and compelling way.

Class of 2023, welcome to the legal profession! I wish you all an enjoyable, engaging and fulfilling career. And by pursuing your passions alongside your work, I know you will find the strength, energy and motivation to make our world a better and more just place for all of us and for future generations.

Thank you. [applause]

School of Law, Boston University. “Boston University School of Law | Commencement 2023 | Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.” YouTube video, 27:40. May 22, 2023.