New York, May 19, 2016—In a rousing keynote speech to the Class of 2016, former United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. ’76 implored Columbia Law School graduates to “keep pulling this great country closer to our founding principles.”
“I can imagine no more exciting—or consequential—time to join the legal ranks,” said Holder, the third-longest-serving attorney general in U.S. history and the first African-American to occupy that office. “Our profession is changing faster than ever before, and our nation is at a crossroads.”
|Eric Holder and Dean Lester lead the graduation procession from Jerome Greene Hall to the South Lawn.|
But the primary question America now faces is much larger than who will become our next president, he said.
“It is reflective of deep concerns—and deep disagreement—about the arc we are on, the composition of our national character, and the direction of this country. The question is whether we will allow ourselves to be pulled backwards, in a misguided pursuit of an idealized past that was far from ideal for far too many, or whether this rising generation—your generation—will lead us into the more just, more equal, and more inclusive future.”
Holder: ‘Keep Making America Greater’
Holder, now a partner at the law firm of Covington & Burling, served in government for more than 30 years, under presidents Obama, Clinton, and Reagan. He was the 82nd attorney general of the United States from February 2009 to April 2015.
|Holder reflects on his student years, his career, the role of lawyers, and the bright future that lies ahead for the Class of 2016.|
In recounting his most contentious legal battles, Holder noted both triumphs and setbacks. He was harshly critical of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which “gutted the Voting Rights Act” and paved the way for state legislatures to pass voter ID laws “designed to discourage and disenfranchise” and to expunge names from voter registration rolls, measures that “this country has not seen since the days of Jim Crow.”
But then he recalled the Obama administration’s successes in national security prosecutions and criminal justice reform, as well as its stands “for equality—and against discrimination” in the Court’s landmark marriage-equality ruling, which he called, “The Brown v. Board of our lifetimes.”
“Your obligation, as Columbia lawyers—and your breathtaking opportunity: Not to Make America Great Again, as some would have you believe, but to keep making America greater than it has ever been before,” Holder said.
Dean Lester Presides Over the Pomp and Circumstance
Presiding over her second graduation ceremony, Columbia Law School Dean Gillian Lester
led Holder and the other speakers at the front of a procession onto Columbia University’s South Lawn and into a large white tent. They were followed by the J.D., LL.M., and J.S.D. candidates, who were cheered by thousands of family members and friends. Lester, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, addressed the celebratory crowd, beginning with a brief salute to the Class of 1966, whose members were marking the 50th anniversary of their graduation.
|Dean Lester discusses balance in personal and professional lives.|
Lester then turned her attention to the Class of 2016 and recalled a novel she had read 20 years ago—“when I was but 9 years old,” she said to laughter. “The book, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, chronicles the lives of four inhabitants of an unnamed city in India in 1975. This was a period of great political turmoil in India, as constitutional changes implemented by the government of Indira Gandhi suspended elections, freedom of the press, and other civil liberties. In essence, it is a novel about what happens to people when the laws that protect and uphold civil society disappear.”
One character—“a lawyer by training but a philosopher by nature”—says, in life, you must learn to “use your failures as stepping stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.”
“You, our newest graduates, endowed with the knowledge and skills you have acquired here at Columbia Law School, will be the architects and guardians of the laws that protect and sustain civil society,” Lester said. “It will be your responsibility to maintain the fine balance that guards hope against the threat of despair.”
Lester advised the members of the Class of 2016 to strive for balance in all their future pursuits, personal and professional.
Professor Olatunde Johnson: Excellence in Teaching
The Class of 2016 also heard from Professor Olatunde Johnson
, this year’s recipient of the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
’16 introduced Johnson, whom she described as an “outstanding educator, advocate, and role model,” as well as “the most generous mentor to any student who seeks her guidance.” Johnson is a nationally renowned expert on civil procedure, legislation, and anti-discrimination law.
|Professor Olatunde Johnson received awards for excellence in teaching from both the Law School and the University.|
She came to Columbia Law School in 2006, after working as counsel to U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee, a consultant on racial justice matters at the ACLU, and a litigator and legislative advocate at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Morris noted that the previous day, Johnson received the university-wide Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching, presented by Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger ’71. “Never before has someone won both the Willis Reese Prize and the Presidential Award in the same year,” Morris said.
True to form, Johnson referred to specific cases, as she praised the Class of 2016 for persistently asking “questions about the values and rules” that shape the real-world impacts of the law. “By asking hard questions, you helped leave this institution better than you found it,” she said.
“You brought insight and empathy, and you took that empathy to journey beyond the boundaries of the casebook to imagine and to engage new ways of advancing your ideas of justice. I trust that you will not stop asking hard questions, and that you will leave institutions better than you found them. You are fortunate to enter a profession where you can play a central role in shaping the fundamental structure and direction of our society. . . . Yes, ‘you did it.’ I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
Johnson returned to her seat after a second standing ovation.
Shared Experiences and Future Journeys
All of the student speakers drew enthusiastic applause, as they expressed gratitude for their close-knit community of classmates. Graduation committee co-chairs Lydia Deutsch and Synne Chapman welcomed the families of graduates and thanked them for their support. “We will never be able to repay you for getting us through,” said Chapman, “but, no, we still can’t give you legal advice.”
“The past three years have been incredible,” said Student Senate President Virginia Grace Davis. “We’ve come together from vastly different backgrounds to become a community. We’ve grown together, learned from each other, and fought for the things in which we believe.”
(l-r) Speakers Virginia Grace Davis, Alexandra Patrice Swain, and Andrés Aguinaco
Gómez Mont reflect on their time at Columbia Law School.
“We have been through a lot together,” seconded J.D. Class Speaker Alexandra Patrice Swain. “We experienced the release of not just one but two Beyoncé albums during finals week. I think I have spent as much time discussing the intricacies of Beyoncé albums as I have spent discussing the intricacies of judicial deference to administrative agencies.
“But in all seriousness, this has been a very tumultuous time to be in law school,” Swain said, pointing out that the summer of 2013 began with the Trayvon Martin murder trial, followed by “various non-indictments of police officers for the killings of black Americans.” Only the actions of her classmates, she explained, alleviated her feelings of hopelessness.
“I have seen you take trips to prison on Friday mornings,” said Swain. “I have seen you all secure asylum for your clients. I have also seen you all write reports to the U.N. on human rights abuses, obtain protective orders for victims of domestic violence, and compose impactful legal scholarship. . . . We now have the tools—and the will—to effect change.”
Class Gift, Student Awards, and a Final Good-bye
Aura Fellows, Bryan Matthew Hogg, Mikaël Schinazi, and Tarinee Sudan presented Dean Lester with the 2016 Class Gift. Fellows said 74 percent of the graduating class contributed to the campaign.
Columbia Law School Professor and Vice Dean Jamal Greene
presented academic prizes and awards to graduates who demonstrated outstanding writing skills and excellence in the fields of international law, environmental law, labor law, intellectual property law, gender and LGBT rights, clinical fieldwork, and trial advocacy.
Speaking for the LL.M. graduates, Andrés Aguinaco Gómez Mont recalled how short their time together was, but “creating memory after memory, we became an intimate community in one corner of Manhattan.”
“Instead of wishing this could go on forever, I hope we can cherish what we lived through,” he said. “If we are the sum of our memories and experiences, then we are inevitably part of each other’s lives. Each one of you has contributed to define and turn us into what we are and what we take forward.”
At the back of the tent, the LL.M. graduates rose to their feet, showering applause on Aguinaco Gómez Mont, who waved his hand as if in good-bye. His reaction was simple: “Love you guys.”
|Students, members of the 'selfie generation,' commemorate the big day.|
Check our special Graduation 2016 website for photos, remarks, prizes and awards, and more.