We can only react to what life throws at us. This virtual ceremony is not the ending we expected. But it is the ending that is required. Now, people say that an attorney must pursue Justice. But what exactly is Justice? What does Justice require?
If I ask my parents, they might say justice requires sacrifice. Twenty-two years ago, they left Nigeria for America and the opportunity to pursue the American Dream. When we arrived in America my family settled in a one-bedroom apartment; though not your typical apartment set up. Our apartment was located inside of a church and we paid rent by cleaning the church as a family. And moving from that church to our new home, we couldn’t pay the mortgage of that home simply by keeping it clean. That kind of money required a promotion; and as one of the few black people in his job, my father became convinced that a promotion wasn’t in his future.
He made the tough decision to leave the U.S. for Nigeria, where he would work to send my brother and I money for support, while my mom worked tirelessly to provide for us by herself. I stand here today a graduate of The George Washington University Law School as a result the of my parent’s tough decisions. Mom and Dad, your sacrifices embody justice.
Sacrifice requires hard decisions. To rule guilty or innocent; to vote yay or nay; to take the deal or walk away. These are some of the decisions that lay before us. And the outcomes can mean life or death; the creation or destruction of wealth; progress or stagnation.
Our profession is characterized by service, so we know Justice requires service. In pursuing Justice for and serving others, it becomes increasingly important to do justice for our own selves and those we love.
Do justice for yourself by loving yourself. “To love yourself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” Appreciate your accomplishments and your capacity for greatness.
It was not until my 2L year that I learned to love myself unconditionally. I used to never think I was enough for anybody or myself. Then I went on a journey towards self-discovery. I came to understand that my imperfections make me perfect; that I must not concern myself with people that will not accept me for me; and that I must trust myself.
Once you do Justice for yourself, you can effectively do Justice for others.
We are pledging our lives to serving Justice through the deals and arguments we make for her. We have hard decisions to make, with hard questions to confront. You will eventually craft, execute, defend, or adjudicate the law.
As we are trained, before beginning any matter, we must find the facts—which requires looking at both sides. The facts lead us to the truth. Facts may vary in their ability to hurt or help a particular party. But the truth can never vary. There is not a conservative truth; there is not a moderate truth; nor is there a liberal truth—there is only the immutable truth. Cling to the truth even when it is hard and inconvenient. Cling to the truth for it will lead you to Justice and set you free.
My fellow graduates: before making a decision, ascertain the facts, using them to lead you to the truth; the immutable truth. Then ask yourself, to serve Justice impartially, what does she require right now.
A seasoned prosecutor like Professor Fairfax may say Justice requires balance; a holistic, empathetic, and compassionate approach to the matter at hand. I remember coming into his office my 1L year frustrated about a criminal law case that did not sit right with me. He told me about a case that came before him as a prosecutor, which did not sit right with him—involving a defendant facing a harsh mandatory minimum sentence. And how he fought to avoid having that mandatory sentence apply in the case; to ensure the defendant was treated fairly and received Justice, even if it meant going up the ranks of the Justice Department.
Balance is understanding what is required at the right time; when to pursue a case and when to drop it.
In our adversarial system of law—there are always competing interests. But we believe Justice is served when attorneys on both sides zealously advocate and battle like gladiators to defend their client’s interest. But this system only works when the gladiators are of equal ability—when there is balance. So, do we not position our legal system to fail when we provide more resources for public prosecution than for public defense? Or does serving Justice only require allowing a person their day in court—regardless of their ability to defend themselves?
As an advocate: your most extreme arguments or offers are usually your weakest. Balance requires cooperation; knowing the right amount of compromise needed at the right time.
Our federal courts are tasked with protecting counter-majoritarian interests—interests that Congress (through action or inaction) is not protecting through law. It’s about balance. But we know these institutions work slowly; a deliberate structure that allows competing interests to lobby members of Congress, so members can arrive at what they believe is the best solution for our country. But is this system not unbalanced when the lobbying is overwhelmingly done for corporate interests?
As quick as the flicker of a flame: The novel coronavirus ignited disarray in many of our lives. From afar: some of us lost friends and family, without the ability to even give one last hug or kiss goodbye; some of us now have to grapple with the uncertainties of securing employment in a market facing a supply and demand shock; and we are all thrust in a thick fog—shrouding the cherished security and clarity of our near future.
COVID-19 discriminates against no one. It is a disease that does not recognize nationality, status, or race. Likewise, Justice is blind. She swings her sword and balances her scales regardless of the nationality, status, or race of those that come before her. But is Justice blind when people of color disproportionately make up the defendants in our justice system. Is COVID-19 indiscriminate when people of color disproportionately die from it?
Responding to this virus is forcing us to confront contradictions of our own construction. How should a nation built upon life, liberty, and the pursuit of happyness deal with the inherent exclusion of others from that reality?
Perhaps we need to rethink what Justice requires. This pandemic is exposing our weaknesses, baring us naked to the immutable truth. In our country, in our world—Justice swings differently if you are rich or poor; black or white; in the majority or the minority.
I’ve come to accept that an exact understanding of what justice requires is unattainable—but only because justice is not a thing. Justice is what you do, how you do it, and for whom you do it. Why? Well, because what justice requires depends on the situation at hand and tough decisions. And we can never be sure of the outcome. But we know we have an obligation to serve her.
I am asking you to craft a world characterized by impartial justice. That is a lot to put on a person’s shoulders. So, I am also asking you to be kind to yourself. Understand that change does not occur through one path. And that expecting perfection from yourself is the easiest way to disappoint yourself. I am asking you to walk with purpose. Our words are precious formations. We must choose them carefully. Once released from our mouths, they no longer belong to us, and we can never get those words back. I am asking you to speak with intention, because you no longer speak for just yourself.
This pandemic is teaching us how connected our lives are. It is forcing us to reconsider what is required to truly serve Justice.
We are too connected to allow each other to fail. We must ban together as peoples united by no borders. But united by our identity as citizens of the world to eradicate our world’s most pressing existential criseses. Right now, it is the novel coronavirus; a virus posing novel problems for people, institutions, and our world.
This fight will require sacrifice; sacrificing the life we are used to for the life that is required.
This fight will require service; service first to ourselves by loving ourselves, then serving justice.
This fight will require balance; balancing compromising enough to create change but not so much that we lose sight of what we are fighting for.
I promise the fog will clear. We will see a clearer and brighter tomorrow. And we will win this battle against the Novel Coronavirus. But thereafter: We must turn our gaze and keep fighting the other ailments that plague our world. By now: We must realize that we are in this fight together. Because our lives and paths are interconnected: Today, more than ever.
So my friends, this is not the graduation ceremony we expected. But rest assured: The George Washington University Law School’s Class of 2020 is prepared to serve Justice. Justice, through sacrifice; Justice, with balance; Justice is what you do.
This world needs you. Your family needs you. I need you. So, depart today and do Justice. Godspeed.