Kathy Hochul

New York Law School Commencement Address - May 25, 2023

Kathy Hochul
May 25, 2023— New York City
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Dean Crowell, thank you for the honor of joining this enthusiastic crowd. I've been listening to you from behind the stage. I think they can hear you all over New York City because you're so excited today. And thank you for your extraordinary leadership team during, as you mentioned, rather unprecedented times and for the support of a strong board led by Arthur Abbey and all the members of the trustees, the incredible faculty. I also had a chance to listen to Nelson Melgar Martinez, his remarks and his love for his family and his story.

So, I'm really honored to be here, and I know you already got an opportunity to thank those who have been on this journey with all of you, your parents, your grandparents, your siblings, your partners, your spouses, sometimes your kids, brothers and sisters, who had to endure you for many years. Let's just give them a heartfelt round of applause once again because they have been on this journey with you from the beginning.

This is my first law school graduation speech since becoming Governor, and it is fantastic that it's happening right here in New York City, which is known to the rest of the world as the epicenter of progressive ideals. This is the place, and this is the state. You can give that a round of applause. I'm proud of it. Maybe that's why we have a little bit of that swagger that the Dean talked about too, right? No other state can say that they're the birthplace of the Women's Rights Movement. The birthplace of the NAACP right here in New York, civil rights. The birthplace of the LGBTQ Movement right here in New York. The birthplace of the Workers' Rights Movement right here in New York, as well as the birthplace of the Environmental Rights Movement right here in New York. So, take that other 49 states.

But becoming a lawyer in this city at this time doesn't let you off the hook. In fact, it puts a special weight of responsibility on your shoulders because many of those movements I described were pushed and led to the courts and won successfully by lawyers of their time. And so, they may be some of the unsung heroes behind these movements, but they're absolutely instrumental in making sure that these movements became successful.

And I want to talk about here today how you will contribute to that legacy. That legacy of always pushing forward to make sure that what we do here in New York can be a beacon for people all across this country because that's what we've always done. Couple thoughts for you. I know you're not going anywhere, you're not going anywhere until I leave. So, if you wanted to lecture on how to make a lot of money as a lawyer, you might just put your AirPods back in and just take a nap and listen to music. But if you want to learn how not to make money, but how to make a difference, maybe we can have a conversation for a little bit.

I'm not here to tell you how great you are either, I'm sorry. That's for your grade school teachers, your soccer coaches, your best friends, you know, your parents. My job is to tell you how to be greater and to push yourselves to be greater. And that's what we're going to start talking about here today. I want you to view your own life in the context of very lofty aspirations. In fact, think about the purpose of your very existence here. And if I can leave you with a couple of thoughts that'll push you to strive to be a better citizen and ultimately a better person, then today will have been a success.

And I'm going to tell you, the path you chose is not the easy one. It is absolutely not. You think about all the hours you spent studying in high school and college and thinking about someday, I might be able to achieve this. It was always elusive. You knew it was going to be a long journey, but I have to tell you that hard part also is beginning because as a lawyer, you are conferred with additional responsibilities more than others in society.

And why is that? Because you will take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America. Most citizens do not do that in their jobs. That is something you will do. And what that says is you're no longer a bystander to democracy. You are sworn to uphold and protect it, and that is something that is worthy. It is not for everyone, and I would say, it doesn't say you can't challenge our institutions. It's all right but do it in a lawful way. We've heard some descriptions of how that didn't happen from your dean and talking about what happened on January 6th, but most people will never view you the same again, either.

I'm not just talking about your really proud family members, but society looks at you differently because they know you have a special skill, a special talent, and what I'm doing today is calling upon you to use the power of that prestige, your own intellect, the power of having a degree from New York Law. Use all of them as swords of justice to find your path to really make that difference. So, whether you're practicing in a big law firm or in the DA's office, in the public defender's office, or a small firm, an advocacy group, and also doing pro bono work - let me put the emphasis on pro bono work because there's a lot of people who need your help - whether you're doing any that, I view you as people give hope to people who don't have hope. When they walk into your office, sometimes they're coming in great despair. Think about someone who's been the victim of domestic violence.

My mother was an advocate to help protect victims of domestic violence way back in the seventies when the laws were not there to help the women who were often abused. She was an advocate. She became a champion. She didn't even have her college degree yet, but she believed in a cause so deeply. She became an advocate, and we started a home for victims of domestic violence when her mother turned 70, because that's what she wanted for her birthday. That's the kind of family I come from. So, think about survivors of domestic violence or someone, a young person in a work environment that's being harassed by a boss or not being paid equally, they don't know what to do. They're going to turn to a lawyer. A lawyer who has the skills and the knowledge to help them have their rights protected.

There's going to be families you encounter. Maybe the parents, devastated parents of an overdose victim who want justice to make sure that their child didn't die in vain and to prosecute, have someone prosecute the dealers who killed their child. Think about the victims of a mass shooting. Their families want to get justice from the gun manufacturer that led to their demise of their loved one. There are so many different ways. There are countless ways that someone in search of help is going to find their way to your door, and you're going to open it wide. You're going to open it wide because you're going to realize that that is your opportunity to make a real difference. Because when you do that, first of all, it makes you a better person, but it makes society better and makes society stronger.

I think back, this was a few years ago, there was a Muslim ban instituted by Donald Trump. I remember the images on television of tons and tons of attorneys getting on buses, taking a subway, taking Ubers out to the airport to say, "No, that is not who we are. We will protect your legal status." It was a shining time in our democracy, and I think today of the thousands of people who've made a life-threatening journey. All the way up - some places from South America, Central America, West Africa, they found their ways to the streets of New York City. And who are they turning to? They're turning to lawyers. You. You can walk out of here and celebrate today, but tomorrow there's a Legal Aid Society that needs your help to help these people receive legal status and allow them to be part of the fabric of this great, great world and great society we live in.

And you're the embodiment of hope for so many people. There'll be countless ways you can help, and a minimum, as I said, you have to protect democracy. I'm not just talking about your obligation to vote because you all better be voting. This is my mom voice. Okay? We all better be voting. But also, when there's threats to democracy, people who try to change laws, who try to strip away voting rights to make it inaccessible to others.

You also now have the power with this degree to go to state houses and the courtrooms and try to really make a difference and say, "No, no, no. People fought too long and hard for these rights. You will not take them away from us." So, I will say you have a role to play in protecting democracy. So, there's many ways that you can be protecting the voiceless, people without power, protecting our democracy, saving our democracy.

But with this, and I mentioned people are going to treat you differently now with this special status, but I'm also going to warn you, as much as you may be elevated in the eyes of society for attaining this degree, don't ever lose your sense of humility. You are not better than anybody else. None of us are. But when you lean into humility and keep your sense of empathy strong, you won't change as a core. Your core values as a person will stay the same.

Simple acts of kindness can make so much of a difference when someone in your position - you're a lawyer in a big law firm, and you take the time to talk to the people, cleaning out the trash cans late at night or the person operating the elevator or the person on the street corner or the person driving your bus. Show people that you don't think you're better than them. Let's get back to that basic sense of decency toward each other.

I'll never forget the night when I was working in the Capitol late and the cleaning lady, cleaning custodian woman, Jackie was her name. Wonderful Jackie. She worked so hard every night. She always would peek around the corner, see if I was still there. I said, "You can come on in. You can come in. It's all right. It's all right. You got to do your job."

And one day she saw that someone give me this rather flamboyant, colorful scarf, and she admired it. I said, "Jackie, I think this will look really good on you." And she said, "Really?" She took the scarf and later at night I looked out the window and I saw her standing at the bus stop twirling that scarf around. She was so proud. That moment made me happier than she must have been because I realized I gave her something that was minor to me, but it made her feel valued. Those are the ways that you have to find every single day, that opportunity to make someone else feel better about themselves. That's the power you have. Don't lose that just because you're now a big shot lawyer. Don't lose that. Don't lose that.

And as I mentioned, there's so many different ways to make a difference. Some of you will litigate, some of you will advocate, some of you will legislate, some of you will agitate. I did it all. I agitated everybody. You should have seen me in my early days. And maybe you'll follow in the footsteps of your Dean, Dean Crowell. A life of public service, and you can tell, I can just tell by the person he is, how deeply he cares about all of you and that comes from a decision to spend most of his life making public policy and working in the halls of government to change people's lives through government.

So, I encourage many of you, whether you run for office or not, whether you help other candidates, support them, there is a role for you to play as well, but if you look for examples. You also might become a dean of a law school someday as well. You could also follow U.S. Supreme Court Justice, John Marshall Harlan, and become a judge. One of your alumni that you can look up to, Charles Phillips, the former CEO of Oracle. You can go into business, create thousands of jobs, and have the dignity of a good paycheck.

Or you can follow Pei Pei Cheng-de Castro. Pei Pei, where are you? I don't mean to embarrass you. One of your great graduates. You can also someday be legal counsel, advisor to the first woman Governor of a state like New York, for example. That's what one of your alumni did. She sat right where you were sitting.

Or you can follow the limelight and be just like Judge Judy, who was here last year. I get it. She's cooler than I am. I get it, I get it. Well, she is also shorter than I am. So, if you thought I was short, you should check out Judge Judy. Really. Nothing wrong with short.

My dream was to work for a Senator someday. All I wanted to do was - I walked in the Capitol as a kid on a school field trip, but I wanted to work in that beautiful white dome building. Someday I was going to make a difference. And I wanted to work in Washington and maybe I could write policy or do something important for a U.S. Senator. By the time I was 27, after time in a law firm, law school, working for a Congressman, I had the privilege of working for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

So, the point being, when I was 27, I was done with my career goals, but women did not think about running for office back then. Now I'm so excited to see 60 percent of women out here. I think that's incredible. Congratulations to the guys too, don't want to leave anybody out. But when I was in my twenties, women didn't plan for a life in politics other than being the brains behind somebody else or writing a good speech or planning an event.

You know, it was not within the realm of possibility. So, I would say that just when I walked across the stage, and I'm going to say it right now because you can all look it up on ChatGPT - 40 years ago I walked across the stage like this, and I did not know what my future would bring. There is no way I can tell you right now that I envisioned that I become elected official at the town level, the county level, Member of Congress, Lieutenant Governor, and the Governor of New York.

So, I say that only because you never know what life's going to bring but be ready for everything and the reason I stand here with this profound sense of optimism about your futures in this very moment, and the Dean referenced this, my optimism is grounded in what you've already had to overcome. Now, everybody graduates from law school. You've overcome a lot. I mean, the hours of study, the sacrifice, the perseverance to achieve something that is so elusive. That's why it's such a small, elite group of people, our lawyers of America. But having to endure that during a global pandemic. Now we say this a lot and, "Oh yeah, the global pandemic."

I'm telling you that rocked our country, our society, our healthcare system. It rocked us to our core. It challenged our ability to manage a crisis that was unfolding before our very eyes. And meanwhile, you're trying to study to be a lawyer. I cannot imagine what that was like. I really can't. And to your faculty, teachers, and mentors who looked out for you during that time and you just didn't walk away, you didn't say, "I can't take this anymore." And at the same time, there's stresses at home, illnesses in your own family. We heard the sirens every night during that time - that fear. I'm sure there were many times you wondered, "Is it ever going to end?"

But you know what the bottom line is? You endured, you persevered, and you prevailed. And that is why, going forth, you will be able to handle every bit of life's adversity.

I think about other generations. You are too young, but my grandparents were always talking about how "we got through the depression. We didn't have any food. We walked uphill to school, both ways uphill, and all the stories. And I'm sure they were true. But then World War II on top of it. But you know what that did? It bound a generation together in a collective shared experience that they could draw on as they grew older, just like the people in this room, the parents. Remember when you say 9/11. That is another collective, seismic experience that shook us to our core, but it also gave us a chance to rebuild and lean on each other and treat each other better for a moment in our time.

And to rebuild physically. Look at Lower Manhattan. It's spectacular. It's not a hole after all these 20 years. It is a shining beacon of democracy right across from the Lady Liberty in the harbor. That's what we do when we're knocked down. We come back stronger every single time, and that is now part of who you are. It is part of your identity as someone who graduated during this incredibly tumultuous time.

But also, you've had a few other things go on while you were in law school. The dean referenced a couple of them. You are not only just the first generation of lawyers to complete your education during a global pandemic, you are also the first generation to feel the effects of climate change with the extreme weather. But I also view you as the last generation to be able to do something about it.

You're the first generation of lawyers to realize there are more mass shootings in this country than there are days of the year. That is a reality that other generations have not had to fathom. You're the first generation to see a rollback of women's rights and LGBTQ rights across the nation, starting with the Supreme Court. You're the first to see the rollback of those rights, not the progression, the march forward that we are always so proud of. And you are, of course, the first generation to witness an assault on our democracy and our nation's capital. All these are seared into your consciousness, but also who you are as a person today.

And you look at globally, the first generation since World War II to see such acts of aggression by a nation like Russia against an innocent neighbor, Ukraine. You're seeing that unfold in real time. So, all of these will forever define you. Yes, they sound discouraging collectively, but in the context of history, they're also empowering. And I think back to all the life experiences, what was going on when I was younger, and I bear those today. They shaped me to be the person I am. Just as those experiences have shaped you in ways you don't realize yet.

I was the granddaughter of very poor immigrants from Ireland. They came here as teenagers, came right through Ellis Island. The only jobs were in the wheat fields of South Dakota where my grandparents were migrant farm workers, until they got jobs as domestics in Chicago - until that day when they heard about the promised land of Buffalo, New York where you could make steel, which is why I'm from Buffalo and a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan.

Sorry. Sorry, Jets and Giants, I love you too. Someday, if you play in the state, it will make it a little easier. I always get in trouble when I say that. Never go off script, shouldn't do that.

But, that is where my family started, my family was lifted out of poverty. Even though my parents used to live in a trailer park, not exactly the most prestigious address. The trailer park is still there. I go back there often to remind me of where I came from and the people that are left behind.

So, those were humble beginnings, but my parents had such a strong social conscious, even though we didn't have much, we got our clothes at a used clothing store. We had a lot of kids, we slept in the attic with a couple of brothers. We didn't have any heat up there. I didn't know the difference.

But my parents had us bring in the children of the migrant farm workers from the neighboring town. We brought in people, children with disabilities from the local "institution," they were called. They brought in people who were poor and hungry because they always knew we had more. We had so many extra kids in our house, I didn't know which ones were my siblings or not after a while.

But it reminded me of no matter what you have, there's someone who has less. And that's a lesson I use as governor today, how I can use that experience to know that my job is to help people who don't have what I had. So that influence on my life made a huge difference. Only a few here are old enough to remember all this, what was going on in the world as I describe all the turmoil in your world today, our world today.

Back then, the country was divided, divided over the Vietnam War, number one. I had four uncles serving, and yet I was out there marching with my parents to protest because we wanted to bring them home. It was a time of civil rights unrest. It was a time when we watched people that I knew, from seeing them on television, our own Senator Bobby Kennedy running for President assassinated. Dr. Martin Luther King assassinated, a civil rights leader that my parents talked about at the dinner table. Think about Watergate - a president resigning in disgrace. I was such a nerdy kid. I watched every minute of the Watergate hearings. But it was also watershed time for women's rights and LGBTQ rights and other rights. So while all this change is happening today, and it happened back then, it is molding you into a person with a social conscience because you can't witness what's happening in the world today and put your head down and look in a different direction. You cannot do that. Please don't do that. And so all that made me become a lifelong activist and an agitator, but also gave me great empathy and a sense of understanding.

And I am a fearless risk taker. I ran for a seats in Congress. I won that seat in Congress 12 years ago yesterday. Everybody said, "You will never win as a Democrat in the most Republican district in the State of New York." And I said, "Yes, I can." So, I've never given up, I've always taken on the tough fights, as I want you to do.

So, I will wrap up with this. The other day, I did find my law school graduation picture. It's getting kind of old. Looked at the pictures with everyone in it, all my siblings, there's so many, they're smiling. And the only one who's not with us today was my mom. We lost her to ALS right before I became Lieutenant Governor.

But the lasting impact of my mother, seared in my heart, was the message that we had on our refrigerator growing up, one of those little stickers. It said, "Go into the world and do well, but more importantly, go into the world and do good." We put that message on the headstone where my mother is buried because when the grandkids visit grandma, she wanted that to be part of her story.

She's one of the reasons I dedicated my life to public service. She had nothing, abusive home growing up, single parent, mom, her parents, her mom. But all I'm going to say to you, with the world class education you just received, in this most fascinating city, the most fascinating place on this earth, with the love and support of the people who are here today, with the alumni network of people who want you to succeed, I am telling you right now, my friends, you are ready for the world - and the world is ready for you. Congratulations Class of 2023!

Governor Kathy Hochul. “Governor Hochul Delivers Keynote at New York Law School's 131st Commencement.” YouTube video, 28:17. May 25, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEHM0aywII4

New York State. 2023. “Video, Audio, Photos & Rush Transcript: Governor Hochul Delivers Keynote at New York Law School's 131st Commencement.” Retrieved May 26, 2023, from https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/video-audio-photos-rush-transcript-governor-hochul-delivers-keynote-new-york-law-schools-131st.