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Janet Reno May 27, 2001 commencement address George Washington University Thank you very much, Mr. President, Dean. Thank you, all. You have done me an extraordinary honor, and I am very, very proud to wear the colors of George Washington University, for its law school is a great law school. Its faculty and students have been part and parcel to some of the best legal undertakings in this nation’s history. I have seen the work of students and faculty in the Department of Justice; I have seen them at work in pro bono efforts around this community, and as they have graduated and gone out in their community, I have seen it there. You have a strong foundation, graduates and a strong tradition, and I believe that you will make wonderful lawyers. I hope that you will have the same opportunities, and the same fun, and the same challenge that I have had in the practice of law. Thirty-eight years ago I went home to Miami armed with a law degree. I believed so in the law. I had such dreams but they seemed somewhat confused. I thought I had made the right decision to be a lawyer, but all the minutiae of case studies and transactions seemed to obscure what I had gone to law school for, and I wondered as I came home. Thirty-eight years later, I went home to Miami. This time armed with a new perspective. A perspective I had not anticipated. I had not anticipated being on “Saturday Night Live,” and I could not figure out what I had done. (Laughter) (Applause) I realize how important it is to laugh at yourself some of the time so that you don’t take yourself too seriously. But it is also important for America to laugh together, and that experience struck a chord across this country and it is important that we remember to laugh together and sometimes laugh at each other. After 38 years, I know I made the right decision. The law has been the most wonderful profession that I could pursue — that includes all the minutiae, all the details, all the facts, the small cases, the call on Sunday night at 7:00, “You haven’t gotten me my child support yet! I’m going to be thrown out on my ear, and my children and I are going to be in the car!” The next morning: “I’m sorry I cussed you out last night, I got my check this morning.” (Laughter) Sometimes the law is not the great legal concepts that you might think it would be, but then some people say, “Janet, the last eight years couldn’t have been pleasant.” The last eight years are the greatest opportunity that any lawyer could ever have, to try to use the law the right way to make America safer, freer, and to give all of its people more equal opportunity. (Applause) I urge you to consider public service along the way. I know that you will do so coming from this great institution, which so values it and which has so encouraged it. As you proceed, seek the truth; be prepared. I once went up against a lawyer, finest young lawyer in town, supposed to be and was, and I beat him because I was prepared, not because I was any better. He subsequently made me the staff director of the House Judiciary Committee and at my vetting here in Washington, he hung around and answered questions. He is the president of another university and the past president of the ABA. Be prepared; it will help you. As you prepare, dig for the facts. If I have seen one problem amongst lawyers in lawyering in America, it is that people like to hang their hat on the law without applying it to facts and without digging, and digging, and digging until they get to the bottom of the facts and see what the truth is. Never give up your quest for the truth and remember that sometimes the truth comes late. When you see the signs of truth, pursue it no matter what — apply the law to the facts, don’t make laws in vacuums. The worst thing I can see around that wonderful conference room table in the attorney general’s office is somebody talking in a vacuum, talking about concepts without applying them to the human terms at issue. But know the law. I again discovered that most lawyers take the cases that are most apparent without digging to find the very last one. I sometimes worry that we can find law on any point we want in favor of our position, but just keep trying to make sure that you get the best law. Then call it like you see it, don’t pussyfoot, don’t equivocate, don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth, call it like you see it and you’ll wake up the next morning feeling good about yourself even though The New York Times has lambasted you from one ocean to the next. (Applause) If you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. If you lose a case, it’s not the end of the world. Figure out why it happened and then pull yourself together and move ahead and face the next challenge. There are always challenges around the corner, and no one can get through this life without a mistake. Solve problems. I see lawyers as having four responsibilities: as advocates, as defenders, as problem solvers and as peacemakers. Too few lawyers are problem solvers. They would rather go into court and challenge the great issues of the day rather than solve the problems of the lady whose apartment is being flooded by the kitchen and toilet from the apartment above. She can’t get anybody to do something; finally a lawyer who cares, a pro bono lawyer, solves her problem and she thinks he’s a little lower than the angels. The days I remember are the days where a man stops me and says, “Thank you for arresting me.” I didn’t arrest you. He says, “I know, but you got me into drug treatment after I lost my family, and I had lost my job and had been down and out for days. I have my family back. I have my job back. I have been drug-free for two years, thank you.” Those are the moments you remember. For coming through a rope line after we had dedicated a church, replacing one razed by arson in South Carolina, a lady breaks through a rope line, heads directly for me, and gives me a big hug saying, “Thank you, thank you. You got me child support in Miami, and these are the two you got me child support for” — two young men grown and doing well. Or to turn and watch a man walk out of a courthouse free for the first time in 22 years for a crime that I don’t believe he committed. A man who had been prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to death for the poisoning death of his seven children 22 years before. To see him walk out free makes all that I have done in the law worthwhile. But be not satisfied, there’s still an awful lot to do and the dreams we have for the law will always be there. For it requires a constant vigilance. Our democracy is a fragile institution; it must be cherished, and we can never take it for granted. We watch emerging countries and ministers of justice coming from these countries with stars in their eyes, and then begin to be frustrated and you see their enthusiasms ebb, they become frustrated, their democracy seems to slip away. Use the power of the law to maintain the democracy, but believe in the people. And what we have got to do is once and for all stop talking about it and for the first time really do something about making sure that every single American has equal access to justice and the law and to lawyers who can properly represent them. (Applause) Too many people are left out. Yet, there is a statement on the wall of the building housing the Department of Justice on 9th Street that says, “The common law is derived from the will of mankind. Issuing from the light of the people. Framed by mutual competence and sanctioned by the light of reason. Unless all the people are involved, the law is weaker for the absence for those who have no access.” We must talk in terms access for all for the 16-year-old who feels put down, lonely, bullied without support. We must think of the 18-year-old who is a victim of racial profiling. The 32-year-old who is in prison, who’s done well in prison, who is coming out and needs his civil rights restored and there is no one there to help him. Who’s trying to make a go of it but keeps being stopped by police officers because he has a record. How do we make sure that he has access to justice before these confrontations that confront him? For the victim of domestic violence, or the 55-year-old white man who’s laid off with no health insurance, or the 72-year-old elderly person who is the victim of abuse and neglect, or the person charged with a crime that he can receive the death penalty for, who has absolutely incompetent defense, or the immigrant whose children are here in the U.S. but must return, the Native Americans, on and on. We must ensure access to justice for all of the people or otherwise the law means little more than the paper it’s written on. And why should we do this? First, we should do it because it is right. But if you find people who still don’t understand that, we’ve got to do it to make sure that these people have access to justice and to opportunity that can enable them to participate in the economic engine that maintains this nation as the greatest nation in the world. If people are left out, if they can’t get jobs, if they can’t get their civil rights restored, they become angry and alienated, and we are weaker and lower for it. (Applause) But finally, for all you do in the law, for all the change that you effect, for all problems that you solve, remember your most precious possessions are those that you love. For all that I have done in my professional and personal life, what makes me happiest is that I have done right by the people that I love. I have helped raise two 15-year-olds who are now grown. When one was sent off to college, and when I went to see her graduate cum laude in three years and she threw her arms around my neck and said, “Thank you, I couldn’t have done it without you.” Those are the moments you remember. And to make sure that my mother never had to go into any sort of facility, but could live in her home and travel in a houseboat up the St. Johns River and across Canada by train, so she knew she was dying of cancer and that she could die at home in my arms, that is as important as anything you can do in the practice of law. You’re going to be great lawyers. Have fun. Go to it. (Applause) Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is considering running for governor in her home state of Florida.

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