Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Commencement 2017

[MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE]

It is now my great pleasure to welcome all of you, distinguished guests, faculty colleagues, families, friends, and members of the graduating class to the 201 commencement exercises of the Yale Law School.

[APPLAUSE]

We gather today to celebrate a moment of consequence in the lives of 213 JD candidates, 24 LLML candidates, four JSD candidates, and four PhDs in law. When these 245 individuals finish their academic requirements--

[LAUGHTER]

When the final staple goes through the final paper, and when the last examination is at last graded, they will be simply the finest law graduates on the planet.

[APPLAUSE]

All the music, all the marching, all the medieval badges, and robes, and ceremonies that surround this day are meant to mark this single decisive moment of transition in the lives of these 245 graduates. And as with all moments of transition, it is an occasion to take stock of the past and also to assess the bright but inscrutable future that lies before us.

If we gaze backwards into the past, we can see a long and winding pathway that has led to this graduation. Members of the graduating class have had to accomplish a great deal to arrive at this moment.

But it is important to stress at the outset that these accomplishments, however heroic, are not those of our graduates alone. Behind each and every one of our graduates is a story of family and friends, of parents who nourished and sacrificed, who hovered and who let go, of grandparents, uncles, and aunts who supported and sustained them, of brothers, and sisters, and cousins, and friends who stood by them and stood with them, of partners, and spouses, and children, and other loved ones who strengthened and inspired them.

The real education of our graduates was earned long before they arrived here at the Yale Law School. We have had them in our care for only a moment. So as we call to mind the past that has brought our graduates to this precious time, let us remember first and foremost those who truly made this moment possible. Would the family and friends of the class of 2017, many of whom have traveled long, long distances to be here today, please rise so we can honor and welcome you?

[CHEERING]

[COUGHS]

Let us also honor the faculty of this law school who sit before you on this stage. This stage is by common acclamation the finest and the most influential law faculty in the world.

[APPLAUSE]

They have worked hard to give you, members of the graduating class, a mastery of the law, so that the law can feel in your hands responsive, and intelligible, and familiar, and useful. And they have also offered you their passion for the law. And so while we are all assembled here and they are all assembled on stage, let us thank them.

[APPLAUSE]

And we should also take a moment to thank the many members of the Yale community who have worked so hard to make your time among us comfortable and secure. They have rescued your computers. They've piloted you through our remarkable library. They've maintained our gem of a building, and they've mailed out your many letters of recommendation. They've responded to your room requests in all caps.

[LAUGHTER]

And they have performed a myriad of other services, of which you may or may not be aware. But today, I want to give a special thanks to those administrators who have worked with you so intimately throughout your time here, to Deputy Dean Al Klevorick, who has toiled so very hard--

[CHEERING]

Who has toiled so very hard and successfully to assemble a superb curriculum that is comprehensive, and challenging, and diverse, and responsive. To Deputy Dean Mike Wishnie--

[CHEERING]

Who has dedicated himself to creating an innovative, and imaginative, and awe-inspiring program of experiential education, which is without question, the finest in the world. To Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove--

[CHEERING]

Who has spent night and day attending to your many needs and helping you navigate through a school year filled with many challenges. To associate Dean Asha Rangappa, who has handled the requirements of your financial aid.

[APPLAUSE]

To librarian Teresa Miguel-Stearns.

[CHEERING]

Who since her very first day has continued with energy, and skill, and joy to maintain the status of our library as the greatest service institution of any law school. To Assistant Dean Gordon Silverstein--

[CHEERING]

Whose tender care for graduate students has been unrelenting. To our devoted and patient Registrar Assistant Dean Judith Calvert--

[APPLAUSE]

Who has organized this day and who works harder than any you can imagine to make sure that your requirements are fulfilled so that, in fact, you can graduate. And finally, to Associate Dean Mike Thompson--

[CHEERING]

Whose inventiveness, and attentiveness, and sympathy for every concern, large or small, keeps this complex place running. And I want to thank all of them.

So this is my last year presiding as dean at a Yale Law School graduation. In a few moments, I shall hand over the maces of authority to my successor, Heather Gerken. And although Heather does not actually begin as dean until July 1, this handing off of maces is as close to a succession ceremony as we have.

But before that time, I just have a few observations that I want to share with the graduating class of 2017. You know better than I that you are graduating into a tumultuous world. If in the spring of 2016 I had written each of you a letter detailing everything that has come to pass since then, I'd wager that none of you would believe that letter. A wave of anger is sweeping the world. From the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, to Brexit, to our last presidential election, we are living in what I think can fairly be called an age of rage.

Resentment and partisanship has poisoned our politics. It threatens to undercut our republic. I don't know how we can continue to govern ourselves if we cannot agree to accept established facts, if we cannot commit to honor country over party, if we cannot regard each other with mutual respect.

These seemingly uncontroversial--

[APPLAUSE]

These seemingly uncontroversial, even anal commitments, are now shockingly contested. And it seems that all the world over, people are feeling so unsafe that they can no longer endure the irritation of having to remain side by side with those with whom they disagree.

So what has caused this outbreak of rage throughout Europe and the United States? It's of course contestable, debatable. But certainly one important factor has been globalization.

Those who have felt pushed aside by the free flows of capital across national boundaries, those who have experienced themselves as ignored by elites benefiting from those flows of capital have responded with a surge of populism that has expressed itself not only in a deep distrust of expertise, the kind of expertise that sustains globalized markets, but also in a powerful reaffirmation of nationalism, with all its attendant re-entrenchment of national boundaries.

Yet in our saner moments, we all know that modern societies cannot survive without expertise. And that bare nationalism has, in the last century, brought us two world wars that have caused immeasurable death and misery.

It's my obligation to inform the class of 2017 that after you graduate, you will inevitably take your position among the elites of the world. You are even now, despite yourselves, and even in the absence of your final grades, experts in the law. And with that privilege-- as I said to you on your very first day of law school-- with that privilege comes the obligation to protect the rule of law and human rights.

And to the extent, and to that extent at least, all of you after graduation have a large stake in ending the furious political eruptions of the past few years. And so my question to the class of 2017 is, how can you help restore sanity to this exploding world?

[APPLAUSE]

In the past several decades, graduates of the school, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, have sought to go to Washington, DC to reform the country. They thought that they had the expertise necessary to conceive and to implement policies that would cure our ills. But now that expertise has itself been called into question, the entire ballgame has changed. What you will need is not so much the right policies as the right kind of politics.

At root, politics is always local. It rises from the ground up. And my advice to you, therefore, is to return to your communities, whether in red states or blue states, and create the kind of politics of which you can be proud. And in my opinion, that means a kind of politics that respects disagreement, that learns from public dialogue, that embraces knowledge, and that affirms the rule of law.

To create that kind of politics, you will have to set an example. You will have to overcome whatever rage lies inside you, and find the courage to reach out to all members of the public, and to become the kind of leader that all can respect. So I urge you to roll up your sleeves, to participate in public debates about the nature of human flourishing, because those debates form the core of proper politics. Our political sphere is one long continuous argument about what makes life worth living.

In its most fundamental structure, politics is driven by competing perspectives of the good, not by quarrels about technique. Politics is, in this respect, different from expertise or policies, because the latter always presuppose an idea of human flourishing. By contrast, politics is the medium through which a society establishes its understanding of what human flourishing truly is.

If you are to lift up our politics from the poisonous atmosphere in which it is currently bemired, you must bring people together in a common vision of a good and a decent life. And once you have done that, policies and expertise necessary to implement your vision will follow easily enough.

Those who enter politics, however, are always subject to a common and potentially fatal temptation. It is what the poet WH Auden called "our error bred in the bone." And he writes-- these are his lines, "Each woman and each man craves what it cannot have, not universal love, but to be loved alone." That's a profound thought.

And some of our greatest leaders do indeed seem to be crave being loved alone. They yearn for the kind of electric charisma that eclipses everyone around them. And because this seems glamorous and the true measure of political celebrity, you may also wish to shine in that way.

But don't be fooled. The need to be loved alone is a seductive and a misleading desire. And that's because there is almost no vision of human flourishing, almost no future worth striving for that you can build alone. Our future is something we must construct together. "No one exists alone," Auden writes. "We must love one another or die."

It is for that reason that every convincing account of politics contains within it a vision of community, of a shining city on a distant hill. It is a vision of how we can live together in peace, if not in love. And it is ultimately only through inhabiting such a vision that we can master the terrors of police violence, or global warming, or international instability, or economic collapse, or economic inequality.

Law is what makes a vision possible that will allow us to solve these problems, because law is the precondition for every social enterprise. And that's why in a famous poem, Auden oddly compares law to love. It's a very witty-- it's an amusing poem. I recommend that you read it. And in it, Auden considers one by one all the standard jurisprudential definitions of law, and he rejects them, each of them.

"Law," he says, "is not the wisdom of the old. It is not the will of God. It is not the pronouncements of judges. It is not the loud angry crowd." Auden takes particular aim at the jurisprudential definition favored by professors who are legal realists. He writes, these are his lines, "Yet law-abiding scholars write law is neither wrong or right. Law is only crimes punished by places and by times. Law is the clothes men wear anytime, anywhere. Law is good morning and good night."

In the poem, Auden rejects each of these definitions of law. And instead, he affirms strangely, really strangely and tentatively, that, to quote him, "Law is like love." He says, "Like love, we don't know where or why. Like love, we can't compel or fly. Like love, we often weep. Like love, we seldom keep." These are difficult lines.

Some scholars, some scholars on this stage have said that law and love are the opposites of each other. But I read Auden to say something entirely different. I interpret him to say that for all its vagaries and portrayals, love is an essential and inescapable dimension of human life. You can't be human without love.

And I read Auden to say that law, like love, is also an essential and inescapable dimension of human life. Without law, we cannot establish a common endeavor or build a common future. Without law, we cannot imagine a better community. We may weep for the injustice of the law, and we may violate the law. But we cannot fly from the law without simultaneously flying from the best parts of ourselves.

To lose faith in the possibility of law is therefore to betray our common humanity. Without law, there can be no society that works together.

And in making this very large claim, Auden has in mind a very specific idea of what law is. We can see this because in the lines that I read you, Auden writes that like love, law cannot be compelled. And that presents a real puzzle. We know very well that we cannot force someone to love. But what does it mean to say that law cannot be compelled when we hire endless police and construct endless prisons in order to enforce compliance with the law?

I think that when Auden speaks of law, therefore, he has in mind not specific legal rules, but the rule of law itself, which consists of commitments, and practices, and little more. We can force people to stop at red lights, but we cannot compel them to internalize the values of the rule of law.

And there is all the difference in the world between the rule of law and the law of rules. The rule of law is a profound complex of values and practices that flow from the need to justify the exercise of force, from the importance of transparently articulating judgment, from the indispensable respect owed to each other in disagreement and in participation, from a commitment to the equality of treatment, from the necessity of recognizing human expectations and reliance, and so on.

There is no simple summary of these values. But you have been exposed to them time and time again during your last years studying here. We cannot compel you to believe in these values, because like love, they live only and entirely within the space of your personal commitments. They cannot persist without your belief, which means they exist only at your sufferance. Without your affirmation, they will languish and die.

Especially in these times of rage when we are so tempted to speak in anger, the rule of law is fragile, and it is at risk. And I hope after graduation, you will come to treasure the complex ancient values that make up the rule of law. I hope that they will undergird your politics. For without them, we shall sink only deeper into the mire that threatens to engulf our common future.

When you leave here, you will become leaders in your chosen fields, and you will no doubt face insoluble problems. But it is the wish of all your teachers on this stage that you may encounter the unimaginable adventures that lie before you with the same verve and intelligence, with the same strong moral compass, with the same pleasure and delight, with the same far-reaching vision that you have displayed during your time here among us. We on this stage place our faith in you to make a better future for us.

So on behalf of this faculty, and this community, and the proud profession of which you shall soon be a part, congratulations.

[APPLAUSE]

It is now my pleasure to bestow on my successor, the inimitable Heather Gerken, the maces of authority of the Yale Law School. Like everything at Yale Law School, they are saturated with irony and whimsy, and yet they are deeply serious. The first mace, which represents authority over the JD population of the school--

[LAUGHTER]

Is called the walking stick mace. And it was given to Morris Tyler by the Connecticut Senate when Tyler retired as Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut in 1876. It represents the law school's links to New Haven, to many great issues of American law, and to the Anglo-American legal tradition. Morris Tyler, who is Guido Calabresi's great-great-grandfather-in-law, was a Democratic mayor of New Haven who courageously supported Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and as a result, lost his office. And this mace, therefore, represents the triumph of integrity over personal advantage.

The second mace, which represents authority over the graduate students pursuing advanced studies at Yale Law School, is a sturdy wooden staff surmounted by an owl engaged in deep study.

[LAUGHTER]

Deep study. Associated with Athena, the owl has long been a symbol of wisdom, perception, and scholarship, and indefatigable seeker of knowledge, even if it does only sometimes fly at dusk. It is our hope that our guardian owl will continue to keep a vigilant and sharp watch over new scholars as they prepare to join generations before them in contributing original and important contributions to legal knowledge. And it is my pleasure now to hand these two very Yale symbols of authority over to you, Heather. I know you will keep them safe.

[APPLAUSE]

Thank you. I am humbled to hold these in my hand. I am grateful for the community which has given me the honor of serving this school. I'm delighted to be part of this transition. And I just want to say thank you to all of you for giving me this opportunity. I promise not to let you down.

[APPLAUSE]

So I will be very brief, because I am ahead of the main event, which is all of you. I just want to say a quick word of thanks to Robert Post for everything that he has done during the eight years of his deanship. When Robert received these maces, he called them a symbol of, I quote, "the continuity of our present principles with those of our past rightly understood."

And looking back on your tenure, Robert, we can say with pride that you cherished the glories of Yale Law School while preparing us for the future. You secured the space we need to grow as we have outpaced the glories of Sterling. You hired the next generation of faculty. And even as you pushed us to be that all that we could, you never lost sight of what has made this a special place, rightly understood. So please join me in giving Robert a grateful round of applause.

[APPLAUSE]

So I will confess that I prefer these maces to the university may that you saw this morning. They are not some giant 25-pound gilded scepter fit for a king. They are walking sticks. Now the thought has crossed my mind that they will be particularly useful for me as I am reasonably certain that I will be the first Yale Law School dean to spend the entire graduation in heels.

[CHEERING]

But far more seriously, these maces are fit for a school and a profession like ours. They are meant to slip into the hands of someone who works, not into the hands of someone who rules. They are meant for a law school that trains you to serve as a voice of others, not to pronounce from on high. They are simple, humble even, which is right for a school that has spent three years training all of you to be humble about your own beliefs, to understand the weaknesses in your own views, and the best in the views of others, to always be righteous, but never self-righteous.

These walking sticks are also built for journeys, which makes them especially appropriate for commencement. And when we on this stage think about the journeys on which you are about to embark, we are thrilled for each and every one of you. You will do wonders. But oh, how we will miss you here.

I know the rituals of today are about beginnings. But for those of us on the faculty, they are also about endings. One of the strangest things about being a professor is that for us, your grand celebration, marked by sunshine, and springtime showers, and hats tossed in the air is for us a moment of mourning as we bid you goodbye.

Now these maces also stand for beginnings and endings. They are passed from one team to another, from one generation to another, just as you, the class of 2017, is passing the school onto the next. And just as every dean who has held these maces has made this place better, even as he preserved its grandest traditions, so have you. You have pushed this community to be more generous and more engaged. You leave in your wake the most diverse class in Yale's history.

[APPLAUSE]

You leave in your wake not one, but two nationwide injunctions upholding the rule of law.

[CHEERING]

You leave in your wake arguments, and articles, and comments in class that will continue to shape our thinking for years to come. And you leave in your wake an adequate supply of squishy standing mats for the classes that follow. The bottom line is that you have simultaneously changed this place while preserving its tradition of excellence. And that is exactly how it's supposed to work.

This place has always been imbued with a restless spirit, the assumption that being the finest law school in the world is never enough, and a deep belief that you, our students, can do anything. Even on that extraordinary measure, you have been an inspiration for all of us. And as much as we will miss you, it is with pride and delight that we send you out into a profession with a tradition as grand as those of this school.

So I'll just close by saying this isn't goodbye. The community endures, and you will always be part of it. So come back whenever you can. Because when you do, you will discover our dark secret, which is behind our scholarly detachment. Behind the cold calls, and the grading, behind our awkward email lies a deep affection and an almost parental pride for all of you. We have always gloried in your successes, and there are only more to come.

For now, all I can do on behalf of the faculty is to thank each and every one of you sitting here. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to stand witness to the beginning of your journey. Congratulations to all of you. Come home soon.

[APPLAUSE]

So we're now ready to graduate students in our graduate degree programs. These students have already been trained as professionals, and they have come to us seeking to engage in the advanced study of law. This year, four students where receive the high degree of Doctor of the Science of Law, the JSD degree. And these are students who have previously received an LLM degree at Yale Law School, and who have maintained their course of study in order to compose a rigorous dissertation, which constitutes a substantial contribution to legal scholarship.

This year, 24 students will receive the degree of Master of Laws, the LLM. Each of these students has studied here during the past year, taking courses and working closely with faculty members in order to meet the strenuous requirements of this advanced degree.

And finally, in the class of 2017, we have four students who have earned the degree of PhD in Law. This is the first PhD in Law program ever created by any law school in the United States. The students have taken coursework, passed written and oral examinations, and composed dissertations. To present the candidates for these advanced degrees in law, I call upon their advocate, and friend, and mentor, Assistant Dean Gordon Silverstein.

[APPLAUSE]

Dean Post, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, friends, and family, it is my high privilege and distinct honor to present to you the candidates for advanced degrees in law, the Doctor of Science of Law, and Master of Laws, followed by those awarded the degree of Master of Arts in Law, and Doctor of Philosophy in Law. For the degree of Doctor of the Science of Law--

[READING NAMES]

For the degree of Master of Laws--

[READING NAMES]

For the degree of Master of Arts in Law--

[READING NAMES]

And for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Law--

[READING NAMES]

Congratulations, and welcome to the ancient and eternal company of scholars.

[APPLAUSE]

In the class of 2017, 213 students will receive the degree of Juris Doctor, the JD degree. To earn this degree, students have had to complete three years of difficult coursework, as well as to undertake substantial and sustained analytic writing under faculty supervision. To present the candidates for this degree, I now call upon our Associate Dean of Student Affairs, Ellen Cosgrove, who has served our students with compassion and with wisdom.

[APPLAUSE]

Dean Post, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, friends, and family, it is my distinct honor and privilege to present to you the candidates for the degree of Juris Doctor.

[APPLAUSE]

We are calling the first six JD students out of alphabetical order because they are also receiving a degree from another Yale School today, and we are trying to help them participate in both ceremonies.

[READING NAMES]

And we will now award degrees in alphabetical order. I should say we read all names regardless of whether or not the graduate is participating, because we'd like to honor each graduate's achievements.

[READING NAMES]

[APPLAUSE]

[READING NAMES]

[READING NAMES]

And that concludes the awarding of the JD degrees.

[APPLAUSE]

Traditionally, graduation at the Yale Law School includes a speaker upon whom Yale University has chosen to confer an honorary Doctorate of Laws. I cannot think of a more deserving recipient than our guest today, widely acknowledged as the singular conscience of Capitol Hill, who stands nearly alone in his capacity to tell the story of race in America, Representative John Lewis has lived an extraordinary life of service.

Despite the many, many, many accomplishments in this room today I suspect there is only one person here whom Barack Obama once called, "my hero." It is a man who was born the son of sharecroppers and who attended segregated public schools growing up in Alabama, a man who in 1961, was one of the 13 original core freedom riders to test the Supreme Court's ruling in Boynton versus Virginia.

[APPLAUSE]

Which held segregation in interstate travel to be unconstitutional. It is also a man who as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, became one of the big six leaders of the civil rights movement, and the youngest keynote speaker at the March on Washington alongside the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

A man who despite being bloodied, beaten, and barely conscious, let 600 orderly marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday.

[APPLAUSE]

And what is extraordinary is that this man, John Lewis, did each of these things before turning 26. In the words of The New Yorker, Representative John Lewis is, "that rare figure who reminds the people of the fragility of their freedom and puts his body on the line to protect and demand them." And he has done so time and time again, most recently serving as US representative of Georgia's fifth congressional district in Congress, a position he has fearlessly occupied since 1986.

When receiving the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor our country can bestow Representative Lewis was described-- I'm quoting-- as, "an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time, whose life is the lesson in the fierce urgency of now."

I am reminded of Balzac's novella Louis Lambert, in which he writes-- I'm quoting Balzac now-- "Resurrection is accomplished by the wind of heaven that sweeps the world. The angel carried by the wind does not say, 'Arise, ye dead.' He says, 'Let the living arise.'" Let the living arise.

Representative John Lewis has answered the call of that angel time and time again, as I hope each of you will. So please join me in welcoming a genuine American hero, Representative John Lewis.

[CHEERING]

Thank you. Thank you, Dean. Thank you, Dean Post, for those kind words of introduction.

Members of the faculty, and to you, members of the class, this class, 2017--

[CHEERING]

You're beautiful, handsome. You look good.

[LAUGHTER]

And I know you're very smart. To your family members, parents, and friends, and all of your loved ones, I must tell you that I'm delighted, honored, pleased, and happy to greet you.

Look you heard the dean tell you that I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama 50 miles from Montgomery outside of a little town called Troy. It is true. My father was a sharecropper, a tenant farmer. But back in 1944, when I was four years old-- and I do remember when I was four. How many of you remember when you were four? What happened to the rest of us? My father had saved $300, and a man sold him 110 acres of land. We still own that land today.

[APPLAUSE]

On his farm, there is a lot of cotton, and corn, peanuts, hogs, cows, and chickens. On the farm, I fell in love with raising the chickens. Any of you know anything about raising chickens? Now you're wonderful lawyers. Do you know anything about raising chickens? I know some of you probably like to eat chicken. But let me tell you what I had to do as a young boy growing up during the 40s and the 50s.

When the setting hen would set, to take the fresh eggs, mark them with a pencil, place them under the setting hen and wait for three long weeks for the little chicks to hatch. I know some of you are saying, now John Lewis, why do you mark those fresh eggs with a pencil before you place them under the setting hen? Well, from time to time, another hen, they get on the same nest, and there will be some more fresh eggs. You had to be able to tell the fresh eggs from the eggs that were already under the setting hen.

So when the little chicks would hatch, I would fool these setting hens. I would cheat on these setting hens. I would take their little chicks and give them to another hen. I would put them in a box with a lantern, raise them on their own. Get some more fresh eggs, mark them with a pencil. [INAUDIBLE] setting hen. They're still in the nest for another three weeks. I kept on cheating on these setting hens.

When I look back on it, it was not the right thing to do. It was not the moral thing to do. It was not the most loving thing to do. It was not the most nonviolent thing to do. It was not the legal thing to do. But I was never quite able to save $18.98 to order the most inexpensive incubator, or a hatcher from the Sears and Roebuck store. We used to get a catalog called the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Some people called it the ordering book. You're too young. Maybe your great-grandparents know something about it. We called it the wish book. I wish I had this. I wish I had that.

But as a little boy, about eight or nine years old, I wanted to be a minister. And one of my uncles had Santa Clause to bring me a Bible. I learned to read the Bible. And we would have church. We would get all of our chickens together in the chicken yard, like together here in this hall. And my brothers, and sisters, and cousins were lined outside of the chicken yard. But along with the chickens, they made up the audience, the congregation. I would start speaking or preaching.

And when I look back on it, some of the chickens would bow their heads. Some of the chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said amen. But I'm convinced that some of those chicken that I preached to in the 40s and the 50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listened to me that day in the congress. As a matter of fact, some of those chickens were just a little more productive. At least they produce eggs. That's enough of that story.

When we would visit the little town of Troy, visit Montgomery, visit Tuskegee, as a student in [INAUDIBLE] and later as someone living in Atlanta, I saw those signs that said, white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting. But growing up, I would ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, why? They would say, that's the way it is. Don't get in the way. Don't get in trouble.

But in 1955, 15 years old in the tenth grade, I heard about Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. on our radio. The action of Rosa Parks and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his leadership inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I got in the way. I got in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.

And I say to you, I say to you as lawyers and trained in the way, you've got to get out there and get in the way. You've got to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble, and help save America. Help redeem the soul of America. Another generation of lawyers, another generation of young people brought about what I like to call a nonviolent revolution in America, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas.

It is left up to you, young men and young women, to get out there and push, and pull, and never give up. Never give in. I got arrested a few times. During the '60s, 40 times.

Let me tell you just-- now I had good lawyers, wonderful lawyers. But the first time I got arrested, a group of us had been sitting in, black, and white, Asian American, Latinos, college students, graduate students, high school students. We were sitting there in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion waiting to be served, and someone would come up and spit on us, lighting their cigarettes out in our hair or down our backs, pour hot water, hot coffee, hot chocolate on us.

And we would just sit there, because we had studied the way of peace, the way of love. We had studied the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. We had studied what Gandhi attempted to accomplish in South Africa, and what he accomplished in India. Yes, we have followed the teaching of Martin Luther King Jr.

And I heard we were going to get arrested and go to jail. So I wanted to look-- if we were going to go to jail, I wanted to look what some students and young people used to call "fresh." I wanted to look clean. I wanted to look sharp.

So I went downtown Nashville, Tennessee, had very little money. Now I bought a used suit. A used suit was new for me, but it was a used suit. A vest came with it. I paid $5 for this suit. If I had this suit today, I probably could sell it on eBay for a lot of money. But I felt free, and I felt liberated. And since I've been in Congress, I've been arrested another five times.

[APPLAUSE]

My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to say something or do something. You as lawyers must stand up, speak up, and speak out, and find a way to get in the way.

[APPLAUSE]

Be bold. Be brave. Be courageous, and never ever get down. Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Look to the future. For in the final analysis, we are one people. We remember planning the March on Washington in August, 1963.

There was a man by the name of A Philip Randolph, who was born in Jacksonville, Florida, moved to New York City, became a champion of civil rights, human rights, and legal rights. As we were meeting, he would say over and over again, "Maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came here in different ships, but we're in the same boat now." It is still true today. Martin Luther King Jr. put it another way. "We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we were perish as fools."

We must save this little piece of real estate we call earth, and leave it a little greener, a little cleaner, and a little more peaceful for a generation yet unborn. So I've said to you, keep on keeping on. It's in your hand to save the Constitution, and bring justice to those that need it, and do your part in looking out for all humankind. I wish you well. Thank you.

[CHEERING]

[APPLAUSE]

Each year, the graduating class elects a member of the faculty to speak at this commencement. This year, they have chosen extraordinarily well. They have selected Professor Anne Alstott, the Jacquin D Bierman Professor in Taxation.

[CHEERING]

This should come as no surprise. Anne was described by one student in her federal income taxation course last year, and I quote, as, "a YLS treasure." Another student, not to be outdone, called her-- and this is a direct quotation, "a national treasure."

[LAUGHTER]

And yet another student, summing up thoughts of generations of those lucky enough to have been taught by Anne, wrote, and I'm quoting, "It is extraordinarily rare to find a professor who is brilliant but also an effective and dedicated teacher and a genuine and caring person, to boot. It's actually a YLS miracle."

[LAUGHTER]

I counted, and the word "best" was used 35 times by students commenting on a single course by Professor Alstott last year.

Professor Alstott graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown at the ripe old age of 20. She came to Yale Law School from where she graduated three years later. After time as an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell, Anne left for the US Treasury Department's Office of Tax Legislative Council. She worked at treasury as an attorney advisor for two years, and then left the government to commence a remarkable teaching career. Since coming to Yale, she has won the prestigious Yale Law Women's Faculty Excellence Award not once, not twice, but four times.

[CHEERING]

Something I believe that no other professor in the history of the school has ever managed to achieve. Professor Alstott's scholarship is of the same superlative rank as her teaching. She has written countless articles, and four notable books on taxation and social policy. Her most recent book, published in 2016, is entitled A New Deal for Old Age, and it tackles social security, one of society's most intractable problems. And it offers a progressive way of rethinking America's system for managing retirement to mitigate economic inequality.

Anne combines a mastery of the tax code with a knowledge of economics that is unique in her generation. She is in the very first rank of interdisciplinary legal experts on taxation and social welfare policy. She produces scholarship that is among the most creative, thoughtful, and influential in her field.

To me, what is most striking about her work is that it is throughout infused with a passionate commitment to justice. She cares deeply about how state policy assists or impairs human flourishing. It is rare to find a scholar who is as fluent in the language of IRS regulations as she is in the nuances of gender and the family, who is as dedicated to the ideal of equality, both contemporaneous and intergenerational, as to the structure of incentives. But Anne is that unique scholar, and it is a privilege to hear from her today. Professor Anne Alstott.

[CHEERING]

Thank you, guys. Thank you. Thank you. What an honor to share space with John Lewis. Fantastic. It was a surprise to us, and a wonderful surprise.

I am delighted and I am honored to be with you on this day of transformation. Today, you're no longer a law student, but a lawyer. Now there is technically the small matter of the bar exam, but we'll assume that you'll pass it, and you will. As of today, you no longer have to meet academic expectations. Your classes are behind you, and your Substantial and your SAW are getting to be behind you.

[LAUGHTER]

As of today, though, you're beginning a much harder project. And that is to figure out what you can contribute to the world, and then meet your own expectations.

For the faculty too, for us too, this is a day of transformation. No longer are we your teachers. Instead, we're your colleagues. No longer can we compel your attention unless we say something worth listening to. We are delighted to be sending you into the world and we cannot wait to see what you will do.

Having said that, I hope you'll indulge me as I say one last teachery thing. I and we are so very proud of you. This class of 2017 is special to me, because I've had the chance to get to know so many of you. And to use a technical expression, you rock. Already, you've litigated important cases, you've represented the interests of the disadvantaged in politics and policy circles, you have written papers that advanced the world's knowledge, and you have learned how the law can advance justice or impede it.

We are also grateful to the families and friends whose work and sacrifice have helped you reach this day. With their help, you've weathered the setbacks and failures-- yes, failures, that always attend success.

This is a joyous day. But even as we celebrate your success, we should reflect on the privilege that our education confers on us. Every human being has equal moral worth, but not everyone has an equal chance to shape our society. Today more than ever, an elite legal education gives us access to the halls of power. How should we use that access? How can we ensure that the law aids the cause of social justice instead of blocking it?

Now these questions feel especially urgent because we live in troubled times, and I do not say that lightly. Domestically and internationally, we see deepening inequality. Some people thrive in the global economy, while others fall behind. Many people find themselves anxious and even angry about their own life chances and their children's.

Now these troubled times might motivate productive change. We can and should address economic inequality and its impact on social and political equality. But growing inequality and rising anger also pose a very real danger. Here and abroad, we see a polarized electorate. We hear political discourse that sets rhetoric above truth. And we witness political leaders who seek to acquire power for themselves by scapegoating the vulnerable.

Today, I want to argue that we as lawyers have a central role to play in these troubled times. We have the ability, and I would say the duty, to use the law to hold power accountable to all the people, and to the cause of justice.

[APPLAUSE]

I want to begin with a story. This is a story I first heard as a law student, and it's become quite meaningful to me. I hope it will be meaningful to you. So when I was at Yale in the mid-80s, we had a class on English legal history. Believe me, I will connect this up. Just be patient. We had a class on English legal history taught by Toby Milsom, who is a renowned professor from Oxford.

He taught us, among other subjects, about the curious world of medieval English law. Those of you who are Game of Thrones fans would have loved this. We learned about trial by ordeal, trial by battle, and trial by oath. These were all real things in the England of the Middle Ages, and for some time after that.

But the particular story that sticks with me comes from the 12th and 13th centuries. By the 12th century, English courts had extensive procedural rules. And these rules required ordinary people seeking justice to navigate some daunting formalities. Anyone who wanted to bring a case had to plead their cause in exactly the right words.

Generally speaking, there were no written pleadings. And if you think about it, that makes sense, since the vast majority of English people, including elites, were illiterate. People who wanted to petition for justice or defend against a claim had to show up in person and speak their claims. Those who spoke using the wrong form of words or who made a mistake in the words as they uttered them could have their cases thrown out, or worse, could find themselves unnecessarily facing trial by ordeal or by battle.

Adding to the pressure, these complicated legal forms had to be spoken not in English, but in French. As you might remember, if you can cast your mind back to things you knew before last school, a little thing called the Norman Conquest had happened in 1066. And for quite a long time afterward, French was the language of politics and power in England.

Now, there were no professional lawyers in England in the 12th and 13th century. There was no bar. There was no legal profession, no solicitors, and barristers. All of that came later.

But what happened in this period-- and finally, I'm connecting it up. What happened in this period is that people began to bring friends to court to help speak the right words. We can speculate that these friends might have originally been kinsmen or neighbors who spoke French. We do know that very gradually, some of these friends and neighbors became repeat players in the courts. And so over time, there came to be a class of professional pleaders called countour in French.

"Conte" means to tell in French. And so a countour was somebody who was going to tell a story in the right words, and without making a mistake. And so the countour stepped up. They stood beside their clients, and they spoke for them in French. And they spoke in a way that compelled the attention of decision-makers.

Now when I first heard this story in Toby Milsom's class, I have to confess I was kind of a snarky law student. And I thought this was pretty funny, and maybe even a little insulting to lawyers. You can imagine what Monty Python would do with material like this. We knew it. Lawyers are mouth pieces. They say empty words for pay.

But somehow, the story nevertheless, it stuck with me. And it has outlived my snark, if that's possible. And it's come to have a more hopeful and touching meaning. Because what the countour offered was to tell the client's story in language that could and that would be heard by the powerful. The countour translated pleas for justice not just into French, but into the language of law.

Today, we share with our 12th century counterparts the power to use the language of law to hold power accountable. In our world, law is the language of power. Not just in the courtroom, but in the halls of Congress, and state capitals, in the offices of government agencies. Just think of the vocabulary you now have that would have been entirely foreign to you three years ago. Tort, and fee simple, statutory construction, and federal preemption. Some of you I know from personal experience can even command the terrible words of the Internal Revenue Code.

[CHEERING]

Words like "depreciation," "bases," and "capital gains." In our time, these are the words that compel the attention of the powerful, from judges, to Senators, from bureaucrats, to arbitrators.

Now many of you have already deployed the language of law to serve social justice. Some of you worked with the Worker and Immigrant Rights Clinic to halt the travel ban.

[CHEERING]

Some of you worked with the Mortgage Foreclosure Litigation Clinic to challenge unlawful debt collection practices.

[CHEERING]

Some of you worked with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic to challenge unconscionable delays in veterans benefits.

[CHEERING]

I could go on, but I hope you'll forgive me if I don't mention your particular project by name. My point is that all of you and more translated pleas for justice into the language of law.

And the power of law extends beyond litigation and beyond the courtroom. Some of you in the Lowenstein Clinic testified in Hartford about the importance of limiting solitary confinement.

[CHEERING]

Some of you in the Environmental Justice Clinic urged the EPA to address environmental harms that affect minority communities, like the disastrous water situation in Flint, Michigan.

[CHEERING]

And many of you have taken up the language of law in your role as scholar. You've written about the unjust origins and shaky legal foundations of marijuana law enforcement. You've written about the critical task of reforming education so that every child, every child receives a decent education regardless of their race, regardless of their immigration status, and regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

[CHEERING]

Now at the same time, I would say to you that lawyers also have a critical role to play in spotting the limitations of law. When we understand the language of law, we can reject pointillist legal formalities. Too often, powerful actors retreat behind the forms of law, using law as a barricade against justice.

Let's take a hypothetical. Imagine a powerful employer that uses repeated legal appeals as a delaying tactic--

[CHEERING]

To avoid bargaining with a certified teachers union.

[CHEERING]

As lawyers, we need not be daunted by the invocation of legal words and legal power. We can call on that employer and others to act according to the values and the spirit of law, rather than taking advantage of technicalities.

[CHEERING]

Now, this vision of lawyers as speaking the language of power is inherently political in the sense that lawyers can and should engage with political power. But it does not partake of any particular political ideology. We can and we will differ in our principle judgments about the use of state power. Some of you think that the state should do more to address economic inequality, to improve access to health care, and to fight discrimination.

Some of you, by contrast, worry that state power is too often misused. You may want to act to limit state power in realms from reproductive choice, to the death penalty, to the marketplace. But whether we locate ourselves among the Social Democrats, or the Libertarians, or somewhere else entirely, we share the capacity to deploy the language and forms of law. When we speak the truth on behalf of others, and in the service of principled ends, we invoke the power of law for the best possible reasons.

Instead, the danger that tempts lawyers comes from another direction entirely. We live in a time of creeping authoritarianism, from Washington, to Moscow, to Ankara, to Manila, and beyond, we see political leaders who are more than willing to co-opt the law to gain power for themselves.

As lawyers, we can face the same temptation. We can, if we choose, to twist the law, the language of law to gain wealth and power for ourselves. We can misrepresent the stories of others and tell them for our own ends. And we can use the forms of law to cement barriers to justice.

In your time here, you've seen both the promise and the danger of law. Just choosing randomly, I'll take the example of tax law. Even in tax-- and you know I'm going to add especially in tax-- we see both the use and misuse of the power of law. Now tax law may seem to the uninitiated, dry and devoid of moral content. But in fact, the tax law determines the distribution every year of trillions of dollars.

And dollars in our capitalist society are not just figures in a ledger. Money in America today makes the difference between opportunity and exclusion, between a decent life and life on the margins of society. So the Earned Income Tax Credit, to take a very specific example, occupies section 32 of the Internal Revenue Code. The words of the statute are dry enough. They speak of qualifying children and eligible individuals. But because we speak that language, we can see past the jargon to what's important.

Every year, through the EITC, the federal government distributes $70 billion to 30 million low-income families. And that money goes to improve their lives, to buy things like winter coats for kids, and to make a difference in their ability to meet the expenses of everyday life.

But the tax law also offers a prime example of the misuse of law. The technicalities of the law create financial opportunities for the well-advised and the wealthy, and traps for the unaware. Yes, half of you can say it with me. Too often political leaders are in the know. They create or endorse rules that predictably reinforce the advantages of wealth. Put in our terms, these lawyers wield the language of law to misdirect state power, to entrench inequality and hierarchy while gaining advantage for themselves.

So in the best traditions of the Yale Law School, I have told you not only a story, but a meta story. It's a story about language and about storytelling. Your legal education confers on you the privilege of speaking the language of power, and that is no small thing. I know you will use your power wisely, and for principled ends. I'm very proud of you, and proud to call you my colleagues. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

So we're about to conclude. But before we do, I just wanted to introduce you one last time to my alter-ego.

[CHEERING]

You notice he's graduating. And he invites all of you and all of us to a champagne reception in the back of the room. Congratulations, one and all.

More than 200 graduates of Yale Law School participated in commencement ceremonies on Monday, May 22, 2017, at the William K. Lanman Center at Payne Whitney Gymnasium, surrounded by friends, family, and the Law School faculty.