Remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder at the University of California School of Law Commencement

Contact information:
(202) 514-2007
TTY (866) 544-5309


Thank you, Dean Edley, for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a privilege to join you; Professor Murray; distinguished members of the faculty, staff, and administration; and so many proud parents, family members, friends, and alumni – in congratulating the Class of 2013, and celebrating the achievements that have defined your time here at Berkeley Law School.

I’d particularly like to thank Javier, Kate, and Aaron for their thoughtful remarks, and for all that they and their fellow student leaders have done to make today’s ceremony so special. It’s an honor to share the stage with you this morning – and a pleasure to be among the first to welcome you and your classmates into the legal profession. I’d also like to thank the musicians who are here with us – especially, as a person with West Indian roots, those talented steel drum players – for helping to set an appropriately formal tone for this important ceremony. Most of all, I’d like to thank the Class of 2013 for inviting me to share in this moment – as we mark the end of your formal legal training, and the beginning of your stewardship of our nation’s justice system.

This is an occasion you’ve been working toward – and waiting for – for three long years. In just a few moments, each of you will accept a diploma signifying your graduation from one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. You’ll take your leave of the campus, and the remarkable community of learning, that you’ve come to call home. You’ll say goodbye to friends you’ve made, and professors you’ll never forget. And you’ll fan out – around the state of California, throughout the country, and across the world – seeking to make a living, striving to make your mark, and aspiring – in every industry and field of endeavor – to improve our country; to make more peaceful a world that’s riven by misgiving and despair; to build the brighter future that all people deserve; and to advance the great and enduring promise that’s been woven throughout your legal education, and must now become your common cause: the promise of equal justice under law.

Of course, I realize that these challenges may seem distant, or even abstract, as we gather on this beautiful morning to celebrate your commencement. After all, your memories of final exams are still fresh, and you may have good reason to focus on more immediate concerns – about job opportunities, looming life decisions, and studying for the bar exam. Today’s ceremony marks an important milestone and I understand that, as we reflect on the achievements that have led you to this point, the last thing you may want to think about is accepting a new mantle of responsibility.

But – today of all days – that’s precisely what you must do. Your journey of service to the law – and to all whom it protects and empowers – is just beginning. Although the future you face is far from certain, each of you has been given a rare chance to make a meaningful difference. Uncertain times give birth to unique opportunities to effect positive change. And, as I look around this crowd of bright young faces, I can’t help but feel confident that you are ready, and superbly prepared, to do just that.

The Class of 2013 has come a long way since you arrived at Berkeley in 2010 – from 27 countries, 113 undergraduate institutions, 77 different majors, and a wide array of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Your diversity set you apart and, as diversity always does, provided the opportunity for tremendous individual interaction and enhanced institutional strength. Your previous achievements – as scientists, journalists, athletes, parents, military veterans, public servants, musicians, and artists – were impressive. And your potential is now truly without limit.

You’ve come together – and forged lasting bonds of friendship and fellowship. You’ve taken part in the same rituals and rites of passage – from AmJur Day, to Thursday night “bar review” – that have been familiar to Berkeley Law students for years. Whether you’ve earned a JD, an LLM, or a PhD, you’ve helped to strengthen and extend the tradition of collegiality and collaboration that has always made this institution such a remarkable place. And you’ve already begun to make a difference – and have a positive impact – far beyond this beautiful campus.

From protesting tuition increases across the state, to rallying support for same-sex marriage – you’ve raised your voices on some of the most pressing issues facing your peers and fellow citizens. From human trafficking to domestic violence, you’ve gained hands-on experience combating heinous crimes, providing assistance to victims, and navigating the complexities of our legal system. You’ve proven your commitment to the cause of justice – and the highest ideals of public service – by logging more than 18,000 hours of pro bono work and changing the lives of the clients of one of Berkeley’s nationally-recognized clinics. And you’ve done it all while coping with the academic rigors that come with a world-class legal education – and taking some time to relax and enjoy student life, during “wine bus” trips to Napa Valley and weekly gatherings of the “Wednesday Warriors.” After all, as the old saying goes – “You Only 3L Once.”

Today, this chapter draws to a close. But these experiences will stay with you. They will continue to guide your actions, inform your choices, and shape your path forward. Whether you envision a future prosecuting dangerous criminals, defending the accused, ruling from the bench, campaigning for elected office, leading a corporation, running a nonprofit, or charting some other course altogether your own – before you know it, you’ll find yourselves in positions of responsibility in all sectors of society. You’ll be entrusted with honoring and preserving the values you learned here – and building on the rich tradition of service and advocacy that your predecessors have established.

From Annette Adams – who, in 1920, became the first woman ever to serve in the United States Department of Justice as an Assistant Attorney General – to Chief Justice Earl Warren; from the great civil rights champion John Doar, to former Solicitor General Ted Olsen – over the last century, Berkeley Law alumni have done nothing less than shape, and re-shape, the world we live in. As we speak, Berkeley graduates are continuing this work at every level of our government, and across today’s Department of Justice – including in my office, where Margaret Richardson, Class of 2003, serves as my Chief of Staff and trusted advisor.

Thanks to these dedicated leaders, and countless others who have spoken out, sacrificed, and organized in order to advance the singular promise that unites us this morning – today, we live in an America that our forebears could only dream about. Before these talented women and men were providing critical leadership to our nation’s legal community, every one of them sat where you do today. Each, in their own way, was called upon to address the threats, and confront the novel legal questions, of their time. And, starting this moment graduates, it’s your turn.

It’s your chance to help realize your vision of a better world. It’s your obligation to move our nation confidently into the future – no matter what it might bring. And it’s your solemn responsibility – and humbling opportunity – to act with optimism; with fidelity to our most treasured principles; and with abiding faith in yourselves and one another – not merely to serve clients or win cases, but to ensure – in every case, in every community, and in every circumstance – that justice is done.

Since our country’s earliest days, the American legal community has risen to this challenge. But you are about to embark on your legal careers in an hour of particular consequence, at a crossroads in history – as our nation confronts grave obstacles and national security threats that demand our constant vigilance and steadfast commitment.

How we respond to such adversity – as leaders, as lawyers, and as Americans – represents a defining issue of our time. And as we reflect upon these threats this morning, each of you must consider some important questions: How can we uphold the values, and remain true to the highest ideals, of our legal system – while keeping pace with 21st-century threats? In what ways could we, or should we, adapt and adjust this system consistent with our finest legal traditions? Above all, how can we be nimble in our pursuit of justice without sacrificing our dedication to our values and the rule of law?

None of these questions are rhetorical. Their answers are being debated every day – not only in seminars at world-class institutions like this one, but in the Executive Branch and the halls of Congress as well. Especially since last month’s horrific attacks at the Boston Marathon, the urgency of this discussion has come – once again – into sharp focus. Complicated and emotionally-charged issues of principle and procedure have been thrust back into the national spotlight. And the importance of finding the right answers would be difficult to overstate.

It is in such moments of difficulty and crisis – when cases are most shocking, emotions are running high, and fear is at a fever pitch – that our legal system, and all who serve it, are truly put to the test. At times of maximum danger we must always restrain the impulse to implement that which we might think to be effective but, indeed, is surely inconsistent with our treasured values. It is also important to remember, in these trying times, that nothing can be taken for granted. Positive outcomes are not preordained. As history teaches us, our great country doesn’t always get it right.

In 1942, just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes here in California and throughout the Pacific coast. Many were transported to War Relocation Camps in isolated areas. More than 60 percent of those interned were American citizens. And, in a deeply misguided ruling, the United States Supreme Court held that this exclusion process passed constitutional muster.

More recently – in the aftermath of 9/11, as our nation struggled to cope with an unprecedented tragedy, and to respond to a new kind of stateless threat – fear and uncertainty drove us, in certain cases, to abandon our values in pursuit of information about those who would do us harm. We used techniques that were of questionable effectiveness, but were certainly inconsistent with who we say we are as a people. And in bringing suspected terrorists to justice, some questioned – and continue to question – the capacity and effectiveness of our federal civilian court system. Members of Congress placed unwise and unwarranted restrictions on where certain detainees could be housed, charged and prosecuted. In short, many lost faith with our founding documents and our time-tested, effective institutions.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, many of these tired and meritless political arguments – and renewed calls to abandon the use of civilian courts in dealing with terrorism-related activity – are being made once again. And once again, every legal professional, every aspiring leader, and every graduate in this crowd today must renew your commitment to standing firm – in the face of manufactured controversy and overheated partisan rhetoric – to uphold our most sacred values.

Let me be clear: those who claim that our federal courts are incapable of handling terrorism cases are not registering a dissenting opinion. They are simply wrong. Their assertions ignore reality. And attempting to limit the use of these courts would weaken our ability to incapacitate and to punish those who target our people and attempt to terrorize our communities.

Throughout history, our federal courts have proven to be an unparalleled instrument for bringing terrorists to justice. They have enabled us to convict scores of people of terrorism-related offenses since September 11. Hundreds are properly, safely and securely held in our federal prisons, not Guantanamo, today. Not one has ever escaped custody. No judicial district has suffered a retaliatory attack of any kind. And no other tool has demonstrated such a robust ability to stop terrorists – and collect intelligence – over a diverse range of circumstances. I defy anyone, on the merits, to challenge these assertions.

Our heritage, and our legacy to future generations, clearly demand that we maintain full faith and confidence in a court system that has distinguished this nation for more than two centuries. Our security demands it, as well, because prosecuting terrorists in federal court is not just consistent with our values – it is extraordinarily effective. The Article III system is both strong and fair. And it has long been seen as legitimate around the world – setting this country apart, differentiating us from other nations, and serving as a model for others to envy – and to emulate.

Come what may, we must never cede our freedoms or curtail our dearest liberties, nor feel that there is a tension between them and our ability to keep safe. Especially in moments of crisis, when we are under attack or faced with difficulty and danger, our actions – your actions – must be grounded in the bedrock of the Constitution. And steps forward must be rooted not only in our proudest legal traditions – but also our highest ideals.

At the same time, we must never be afraid to engage in a robust, responsible dialogue about new strategies for dealing with new challenges – including the need to provide law enforcement with the tools and authorities necessary for gathering vital intelligence; keeping pace with rapidly-changing threats; and protecting public safety – all while safeguarding individuals’ rights to due process. Just as surely as we are today a nation at war – so, too we are, and must always remain, a nation of laws.

With all that you possess, and all you’ve been given, every member of the Class of 2013 has a special responsibility to help us meet these challenges – and keep advancing our uniquely American pursuit of a safer, more just, and more perfect Union. I’m encouraged to note that more than 50 of you are already planning to fulfill this obligation by pursuing positions in public interest law and public service. Others have been awarded post-graduate fellowships to perform public interest work. And two of you will soon be coming to the Justice Department – to work for me.

But, in the critical days ahead, no matter how you choose to put your legal training to work – in the public sector, in private industry, or in private practice – I urge you to keep up the habit of pro bono service you established here at Berkeley. Keep engaging with the difficult concepts and defining challenges you’ve grappled with on this campus. And never forget that every one of you is among the most qualified legal professionals in this country. You are among the best equipped to serve and to lead. And you are among the most prepared to help a new generation rise to the challenges of the moment, bring about the meaningful changes we need, and make this world – your world – a truly better place.

I know that each one of you has that ability – and that possibility – within you. I implore you to make the most of it. Use your unique skills, your idealism – and the power that your new law degree affords – to better yourselves, to improve your communities, and to solve the complex problems that undoubtedly lie ahead. Dare to question that which is accepted truth. Strive to change that which is unjust. And dedicate yourselves, above all else, to creating a world that reflects your aspirations for a brighter future; reaching for the principles that have always made our nation great; and fighting to secure and make real the promise of justice not only for your time, but for all time.

As you make your way forward, know that we have faith in you. We are proud of each one of you. And we are counting on this Class of 2013 to make more fair and just a world that now looks to you for the leadership that you are uniquely qualified to share.

Congratulations, Class of 2013 – and Godspeed.