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Joseph Lieberman May 11, 2001 convocation address New York University Law School Thank you. It is a great pleasure to be here and to have the honor of addressing you. I want to thank John Sexton for his kind remarks, and to extend to both him and to the NYU community a hearty congratulations on his ascension to the presidency of the university. I have known John for almost two decades, and I know that NYU could not have chosen a more gifted, gregarious, principled or purposive leader. I wish you Godspeed, John. John and I worked together on the only case I have argued before the United States Supreme Court, in which we defended a Connecticut statute protecting the rights of religious workers to take their Sabbath off from work. John wrote the brief, and I argued the case. We lost 8 to 1. As I am sure you all have learned here at NYU Law School, it is rarely the oral argument that wins or loses a case, so it must have been the Sexton brief. Incidentally, the one justice who sided with us was Justice Rehnquist, which created a warm spot in my heart for the Chief — at least until December 12th of last year. But that is a topic for another day. Commencement addresses are probably the most enjoyable I get to give, because they commemorate such a wonderful event in the lives of the listeners. Today’s commencement is even more special than usual, for several reasons. To begin with, my first career aspiration was to be a sports star, so I always dreamed of playing at Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, my failure to keep growing doomed my chances for the NBA, and my mother wouldn’t tolerate the prospect of stitches and tooth loss that go with a hockey career. So I ended up in a fallback profession, but, thanks to John Sexton and all of you, I have finally made it to Madison Square Garden. The other, more important reason why this commencement is so special for me is that my daughter-in-law Ariela Migdal is among those graduating, and so I stand here not only as your convocation speaker, but also as one of the many tremendously proud parents, family members and friends who share the joy of this day with you graduates. Hadassah and I are particularly glad to share this happiness with Ariela’s wonderful parents — Marcy and Joel Migdal. Ariela’s graduation makes Hadasash and me happy for so many reasons — not the least of which is that with her graduation today, Ariela is making sure that we are continuing the tradition that no couple in our immediate family should be without a lawyer. And, of course, this speech is special for me because it gives me an officially sanctioned opportunity to give advice to one of our children, without any chance of interruption or departure from the room, however long I choose to speak. I am sure all of the parents in the audience can appreciate the special joy this brings to my heart. My simple message for Ariela and all of you today is that the degree you have earned brings you into an honorable and important profession, one you should be profoundly proud to enter and one that you should try your best to use for good. Devotion to the law is what makes a free and peaceful society possible. The law, at its best, is a collective statement of society’s aspirations, a group articulation of the blueprint of ideals by which we believe we all should live. Without the law — and the confidence it brings that rights will be established, that the weak will be protected, that violations of public norms will be remedied, that agreements will be enforced, and that breaches of the peace will be punished, no society — certainly no democratic society — could function. As John Locke succinctly put it more than 300 years ago, “Wherever Law ends, Tyranny begins.” The law that makes civilized society possible is not the product of a miracle; it is the work of lawyers. Throughout American history, lawyers have been among the most significant agents for constructive societal change. From Thomas Jefferson, whose proud principles and stirring prose set the stage for America’s independence and continue to this day to define so much of America’s aspiration for itself, to Louis Brandeis, whose innovative “Brandeis brief” changed the lives of America’s workers when it convinced the Supreme Court to uphold minimum wage and maximum hours laws, to Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues, whose work in the cases that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education surely produced one of the American legal system’s finest moments, to Erin Brockovich, who personifies everyone in our profession who has fought to protect and repair victims of environmental pollution, to each of you who worked in a clinical program on behalf of clients whose rights needed your advocacy — America’s lawyers have been at the vanguard of progress in our society. The legal system has proven not only to be a forum through which we can express and vindicate our values; it also has shown that it can help form them. Take, for example, the Civil Rights laws we enacted in the 1960s and ’70s. Before those laws, many in our society may have believed that people of color should have equal job opportunities, that barriers keeping African-Americans from exercising their right to vote should be removed, or that girls should be assured the same educational and athletic opportunities as boys. But it was the enactment of those propositions into enforceable laws that converted the deeply held beliefs of a movement into the ethical norms of the land. And as the battles over those legislative proposals receded into the past, and the provisions assumed the status of well-established law, they seeped into the American conscience in a way only something with the force of law can, expanding our nation’s notions of tolerance and truly changing both the belief and behavior of the American people. This is something we are seeing still today with the Americans with Disabilities Act. As our public places and spaces are changed to comply with that law, most Americans are becoming more aware of, more sensitive to — and more supportive of — both the needs and the abilities of those with disabilities, again showing the profound potential the law has to alter our views and our behavior. As we absorb the previous generations’ human rights laws into our national psyche, new barriers “appear” to us, and lawyers and the law are there to break through them. In our time, it is the barriers to equal opportunity for gay and lesbian Americans that we must work together to breach. Through new laws and litigation, we surely will. The values-altering impact of the law is not, of course, limited to Civil Rights. The environmental laws of the past generation have created a whole new ethic both in the business community and in the greater society. Our debate no longer is about whether we should protect our environment or whether we must take action to preserve our water and our air, but instead how we should do so. Indeed, many companies today now compete against each other to see which one can be more green. For all of you born after the advent of the civil rights or environmental movements, it may be hard to appreciate just how far we have come, largely because committed lawyers worked within our system, as litigants and lawmakers, judges and administrators, to change our laws and therefore our lives. It is to you, as new lawyers, that we now pass the torch. Your goals needn’t be on the scale of Louis Brandeis’ or Thurgood Marshall’s to make a difference. By engaging in pro bono work throughout your career, or by committing to pursue whatever type of legal practice you choose with the highest ethical standards, or by spending some part of your career in public service, full time or volunteer, you will make a difference — in improving society and your chosen profession. Now, I ask your indulgence for just one final reflection. As I look out, I see not just those of you who are graduating, but also a far larger number of people, here to celebrate this day with you. This calls to my mind a prayer that Jews say whenever something happens for the first time, one in which we thank God for giving us life, for sustaining us and for allowing us to reach the occasion we are celebrating. The prayer reminds us that our greatest moments of joy should also be our greatest moments of gratitude, because none of us has reached where we are without the help and sustenance of others. In our family, we will say that blessing of thanks and hope today for Ariela as she enters this new chapter of her life. For each of you, there is someone else to whom thanks are due — for giving you life, for sustaining you and for helping you to arrive at this most joyous day. And so I hope as each of you now moves with your legal degree to this new season of your life, that you go forward with appreciation for the importance and nobility of the profession you have chosen; with idealism, hope and commitment to what you can achieve in it; and with humility and gratitude to those who have helped you form your dreams, and to those you will need to help you realize them in the years ahead. Thank you. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., was the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate.

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