Monday, May 21, 2018

Former U.S. Soliciator General Verrilli Delivers Commencement Keynote Address

Loyola Law School, Los Angeles' 2018 Commencement address was delivered by Donald B. Verrilli Jr., partner, Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP. Verrilli served as Solicitor General of the United States from 2011 to 2016. 

President Snyder, Dean Waterstone, distinguished faculty, alumni, family and friends, and members of the graduating class of 2018:

Thank you for inviting me to be with you today. Loyola Law School, Los Angeles is a special place and today is a special day, and I feel very privileged to be able to share it with you.

Let me start with a hearty congratulations to each and every one of you. Anybody who has been to law school knows that it was not easy to get to where you are today. So today is a day for savoring your accomplishments, reflecting on all the hard work you put in and all the obstacles you had to surmount, to earn the diploma that you will have in your hands in just a few moments. It’s a day for joy – a joy to be shared with the family and friends that helped you get to where you are now and that feel such pride in all that you have accomplished so far. So bask in it all. Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the satisfaction of having run this race well and crossing this finish line. 

But this is a commencement address after all, so we have to talk about what comes next. As I am sure you have noticed, things are not pretty out there in the real world. If there ever were a moment when this country really needed lawyers to do what lawyers do, this is that moment. And you are the ones who need to do it.

It’s been said many times, but it is worth repeating now: our country, the United States of America is above all an idea. We are not defined by a common ethnic or racial identity. We are not a country only for those who can trace their ancestry back for centuries or even decades. My great grandfather was a shepherd who came to this country from a rural village in Italy with no education and no money – exactly the kind of immigrant who some now say would have trouble assimilating. He started a business, put his children through college (including the girls), became a proud patriot despite the ethnic prejudice he faced, and launched a family that has tried over the generations to contribute to this country. I’m sure most of you here today share a similar family story. As was true with my great grandfather, to be an American is above all to share a faith in a common purpose, a common set of principles – no matter who you are or where you or your ancestors came from or how they got here. That is what we are all about. The core of this faith can be expressed in different ways, but I think the Preamble to the Constitution captures it best: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Of course, our Constitution and our laws are just words on a page. And the courts that enforce our laws are just human institutions like any other. The world’s most oppressive regimes have constitutions. They have laws. They have courts. And very often their constitutions and their laws proclaim the same commitments to human rights and to the rule of law as ours do. What ultimately distinguishes us from those kinds of regimes is whether we really believe in those words on the page and whether we make the sacrifices that a genuine commitment to these values demands. What matters is whether we have faith.

Let’s not mince words. Our civic faith is undergoing an extreme test. I am not talking about disagreements over policy. In our democratic system we will always debate and disagree about policy, and we should. That is how we learn and grow and prosper as a nation. Something much more important is at stake. We have a President who tries every day to undermine the public’s confidence in the rule of law – who sows doubt about the integrity of the women and men of the Department of Justice and the FBI (women and men whose integrity and commitment to public service I saw up close every day for the better part of eight years when I was in the government), a President who demands that his political adversaries be thrown in prison, who attacks the integrity of judges when they rule against him. We have racists and Nazis marching with torches in Charlottesville Virginia chanting “blood and soil” like they did in Germany in the 1930s, and a President who refuses to call them what they are. We have unprecedented attacks on the free press, criticism dismissed as “fake news” and critics threatened with financial ruin. And some version of this occurs virtually every day, to the point that it is now defines what is normal in our political discourse. And it’s not just the President. Our political leaders routinely forsake compromise, demonize opponents, and sell out the long term health of our constitutional system in order to gain maximum short-term partisan advantage. This is taking an enormous toll. More and more people believe that the system is rigged, that our institutions are corrupt, that our Constitution and laws are just words on a page – just tools to be manipulated in the service of selfish interests. This is a test of faith.

So now let’s talk about you and your futures. When you take your place in the world, the work you do every day will give you the chance to prove to your clients, to your communities, and to the country, that our core principles are not just words on a page. Your work will be the acts of faith that make these principles real. That shows your clients, your communities, your country that they should have faith.

When you battle a landlord to make sure that your clients can live in a home where the plumbing works, the ceiling is not caving in and doors lock, that’s an act of faith. Your work shows your clients that they have rights that the law will respect, that they matter, and that they are not powerless to change their world. When you battle the Veterans Administration to make sure that that a vet gets the care she deserves to treat mental illness or drug addiction, that’s an act of faith. It tells that veteran – your client – that she matters, that she deserves the treatment you are fighting for, and that she has some control over her world. When you work tirelessly to dig up the facts that prove a man’s innocence and free him from death row, or when you fight to stop a deportation that will tear apart an immigrant family, those are acts of faith. When you devote yourself as a prosecutor to achieving a measure of justice for victims of sexual assault or to rooting out corruption, those are acts of faith. And even when you fight these fights and you lose – and I can tell you from experience, you are going to lose some, even some you should win – it’s still an act of faith. Your client still knows someone cared enough about her to fight for her rights. And what is so great about the education you have received here at Loyola Law School is that you have learned this already – you have already taken on these very kinds of fights.

And what’s really critical is that each time you fight one of these fights you don’t just fight to give your clients a sense of dignity and control over their world – as important as that is. Every time you fight one of these fights, you stand up for the rule of law. Every one of these fights is an act of faith in the rule of law. So this work – the work that you will do as lawyers every day – is the best possible response to the challenge we face right now. It is profoundly important work. You will be working to “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, provide for the common defense, insure domestic Tranquility, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

I’ve lived long enough now to be able to say that when all is said and done, what’s going to matter is not how much money you made or how many fancy titles you accumulated. What’s going to matter at the end of the day is what you stood for. I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to serve as Solicitor General under President Obama. I got to stand up in the Supreme Court to defend the Affordable Care Act, to demand equality under the law for gay and lesbian people, and to do so much else. But what really mattered was not that I got to argue these landmark cases. What really mattered is that I had the chance to stand for something: for the principle that a right to health care was essential to enjoying the blessings of liberty, and for the principle that gay and lesbian people should be fully equal in the eyes of the law. And in my work before going into government, I did a lot of work defending people on death row. That work allowed me to stand for the principle that everyone, no matter how horrible the crime they may have committed, deserves fair treatment in our courts – and that no one should be defined exclusively by the worst thing they have done. For me, standing up for these principles – for what I believe in – has made all the difference. I’m not trying to make an ideological point here – you can think I’m totally wrong on each one of these principles. That’s ok. What matters is that you take a stand.

And let me close with the suggestion that what matters most right now, in this moment, is that all of us in this profession – conservative, liberal, progressive, moderate, whatever you are – take a stand for the rule of law. Our Constitution is precious. It defines who we are as a people. Don’t let it be turned into mere words on a page. Every one of us has it in our power to reaffirm our faith in these defining principles. I hope that every one of us here today can find a way to go out and do that.

But that starts tomorrow, for today -- just enjoy. Congratulations and thank you.

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