Georgetown Law Commencement Address Delivered by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC)
May 21, 2018
Delivered May 20, 2018
Georgetown’s newly minted lawyers, class of 2018, are entering one of our most traditional, dare I say, conservative, professions. A profession that must always be on the front lines to preserve the oldest and most precious gifts from the founders of our nation — a written constitution to guarantee the rule of law and rights of the people.
Many of today’s graduates may use their Georgetown Law degree other than in the traditional practice of law, at least for part of their professional life. But as you receive the diploma that reflects your hard labor, I ask you to never forget that as of today, you are a lawyer, whatever you choose to do with your law degree. In the unlikely event that you do not pass your bar examination the first time — I say, take it again, even if you do not practice law.
Although I have spent much of my own life not practicing law in public service, I have always considered myself a lawyer. I was a tenured professor of law here at Georgetown before being elected to Congress, and I continued to teach a seminar as a Member of Congress until this academic year.
Despite being elected to the House of Representatives, I continued to teach at the law school, except during my first term. After all, I told my students, in my race to fill a seat that had been vacated, running against half a dozen opponents, it was easier to get elected than to get tenure. Actually, though, I enjoyed teaching, and did not want to give it up. Teaching using the Socratic method uniquely exercises the mind.
Teaching at Georgetown, I developed a seminar that combined what I had learned as a law professor, practicing lawyer, chair of a law enforcement agency — the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — and as a Member of Congress. I titled the seminar “Lawmaking and Statutory Interpretation” out of my experience both enforcing and writing laws. I developed a fascination with how and why courts have so much difficulty interpreting our laws. I reluctantly gave up teaching this year because Democrats could take control of the House and I could become a committee chair.
My work in Congress has benefitted immensely not only from my legal education, but from always considering myself a lawyer. Even today, all of my legislative assistants are lawyers, including Portia Boone and Trent Holbrook, Georgetown Classes of 2013 and 2016. Though many Members of Congress do not require a law degree [for] a legislative assistant, for me, once a lawyer always a lawyer, [and] in need of other lawyers to try out my ideas. These young lawyers who serve as legal assistants have benefitted my work in Congress immensely on the incredible mix of issues that come before the Congress.
Although I am urging the class of 2018 to always regard yourselves as lawyers, whatever you do, I confess that the official body where I serve, where 50 percent of the Senate and 36 percent of the House are lawyers, may not be the best evidence that lawyers do good in the world. Still, more than half of our presidents began as practicing lawyers, including most recently, Barack Obama, and the greatest of them, Abraham Lincoln. Of course, people do not go to school to become president or Members of Congress. Nevertheless, you will find that your Georgetown Law degree will carry assumptions about your potential to be leaders of your communities.
Today, the Georgetown Law class of 2018 is in a position to assume leadership in the profession before waiting your turn. Already, members of your generation, even younger than you, are taking leadership of one of the most difficult issues in the country — gun violence prevention. Not yet in college, much less thinking of law school, Parkland, Florida students have summoned a new generation that is moving this vexing gun issue forward for the first time in a generation. These high school students recently brought thousands of Americans of every age to the nation’s capital and started a movement that has the gun lobby on its heels.
The Parkland teenagers have learned from prior generations that citizen action and leadership in our country are necessary to move immovable issues, the way my generation of African Americans did when I was in the civil rights movement as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as we called it, or the way generations of women protested until they won the right to vote and changed the Constitution itself. Change, especially change that requires legislative solutions, will not occur easily given our vast, inherently disharmonious, and increasingly polarized country. Change will only occur if we make the highest, best and most peaceful use of the First Amendment.
The law has been fundamental to change in our country, especially the First Amendment. Yet there is recent disquieting evidence on college campuses of intolerance of speech at odds with the progressive views many in your generation and I share. A Brookings Institution survey examining college students’ views of the First Amendment found “freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses.” For example, a significant number of college students believe that “hate speech” is not protected by the First Amendment. Fifty-one percent believe that shouting down a controversial speaker so he or she could not be heard was acceptable — 63 percent were Democrats and 38 percent were Republicans, but bear in mind that the most controversial speakers on campuses today are from the far right.
Will the generation that is using protest so precociously for issues they favor, like gun safety, also exercise the tolerance that allows those who favor the opposite side to be heard? According to the Brookings survey, this is not a rhetorical issue. In fact, history shows that our society periodically must relearn the reasons the Framers added the Bill of Rights as a vital addendum to the nation’s founding document. Inevitably, we periodically get the challenge to apply the Bill of Rights to conditions the Framers could not have imagined. There is some indication that this generation could use the benefit of leadership, not from my generation, but from their own generation of young lawyers, whose education equips them to explain in terms their generation can understand that the First Amendment right to speak must be reciprocal.
I do not mean re-teaching the meaning of the First Amendment by bringing cases. Few lawyers will have the opportunity I had as a young lawyer, not long out of law school and the civil rights movement, to argue a case in the United States Supreme Court representing an unabashedly racist organization barred by a prior restraint court order from appearing again after engaging in racist and anti-Semitic remarks at a rally. Or another I argued in the New York courts when liberal mayor of New York John Lindsay denied notorious Alabama Governor George Wallace a permit to speak at a public facility, Shea Stadium. These were not difficult cases in light of controlling precedent. My direct clients were a minority in American society, proselytizing racists with whom I had nothing in common. Yet it was clear that the ultimate client was the First Amendment itself.
Those who have brought change to our country did not win it by shutting down the other side. They won change the hard and only way that ensures it will be lasting. They persisted against their adversaries until they persuaded the country that they should prevail. To be sure, sometimes the changemakers have pursued change using lawyers and judges, like Georgetown’s many alumni. Even so, ultimately, changemakers, acting with vital help from the law, must persuade the democratic majority to accept change, even if they won it in the courts.
Who is in the best position to help not only young people, but also the American people, to relearn the purposes and uses of the First Amendment for these times and in our polarized society? I believe I am speaking to them now as the 2018 Georgetown Law graduates go on to become leaders of their communities.
The First Amendment as a tool for change is far easier to understand than appreciating the benefits when all sides are heard. That is where young lawyers can come in — trusted members of their own generation speaking in their own terms and language, offering reasons why hearing the other side of arguments is critical to change our society. After three years of law school, the class of 2018 knows that lawyers sharpen their own cases best when they have heard the other side. And we all know that allowing the other side to speak without interruption earns respect from the public, the actual party we need to accept the change we are after.
The often quoted line from Shakespeare, “let’s kill all the lawyers,” is only noting the reality that lawyers not only survive, they lead. They lead wherever leadership is needed in the country and in their communities. The Georgetown Law degree the class of 2018 earns today is a key that can unlock many doors. Your degree gives you a key to open the door to personal success. But this key also allows you to spread the full value of your degree to a society that is on a perpetual search for leadership to encourage us to embrace our best instincts and honor our proven principles.