Lewis and Clark Commencement
I am deeply honored to be here. Thank you to Dean Jennifer Johnson and the law school administration for inviting me to return home.
I loved being a student here. As you graduates have discovered, this is truly a special place. A place where, through a special mixture of adrenalin, terror, and perspiration, you are transformed from a regular person into a lawyer.
Today, as newly-minted lawyers, you will take your first steps down the path to your future.
Before you do, take just a moment to look around at your classmates. You all came here from 36 states and 16 countries in pursuit of a law degree or a masters of law. And these degrees you have earned.
But you take something else with you today, something equally precious and hard-won: good friends. The friendships you have made at law school are likely to be the most profound and long-standing relationships of your life. I know they are for me.
Why? Because law school is the crucible that formed you into who you are today. As your classmate Amanda Gomm [**rhymes with “Mom”**] said, “You kind of go through the fire together and you understand the same trauma.”
That “fire” changes us. Anita Hill swears law school fundamentally changed how she thinks, how she solves problems, and how she sees the world.
Writer Charles Morgan famously said, “If Moses had gone to Harvard Law School and spent three years on the Hill, he would have written the Ten Commandments with three exceptions and a savings clause.”
Your legal education has prepared you well. And if the Ten Commandments aren’t up for revision, there’s still plenty of opportunity to pursue a life of meaningful work. In fact, I’d say you are fully capable of changing the world.
You depart these halls today into a world that desperately needs your brains, your energy, and your dedication to creating a more ethical, compassionate, and inclusive society.
Lately, Americans have learned first-hand - and in disconcerting ways - the importance of the judicial branch in protecting and serving the public good.
When the executive branch unlawfully banned travel to the United States by people from a number of Muslim countries, who overturned it?
A court of law.
When the executive branch sought to deny federal funding to “sanctuary” cities, who shut it down?
A court of law.
It begs the question: when our president tweeted, “See you in court,” I wonder if he meant so many courts, so soon.
The new administration faces a whole host of real and threatened court challenges to a range of new policies, from rollbacks of clean air and water regulations to religious liberty protections. With Congress seemingly unable or unwilling to influence or oppose many of these policies, the courts are, in reality, our only hope of protecting the public good.
It comes down to this: Today’s political superheroes, the ones fighting the good fight - and often winning, are … take a guess … attorneys.
Yes. Attorneys. Maybe a law degree should come with a sparkly suit. Or at least, a cape!
Because, as we see almost daily, the fight for justice never ends. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of discrimination and inequity in the world. You simply need to choose which worthy cause to fight for.
For example, your classmate, Tessa Copeland.
Tessa came to Lewis & Clark for its animal law program, which, like environmental law and other specialties here, is outstanding.
But Tessa discovered an even greater passion.
With other Lewis & Clark law students, she volunteered at the Dilley Detention Center in Texas, working with women and children seeking asylum in the U.S.
Women and their children can be incarcerated for months while their asylum cases wander through the immigration system.
In their home countries, some of these woman suffered severe abuse, death threats, and other traumas. They dare not go back.
Most arrive at the Dilley center severely sleep-deprived. Many suffer from PTSD. They worry about making their case, especially in front of a male asylum officer. They do not want to relive past traumas, especially in front of their children.
The women have credible, compelling stories to tell. But as Tessa says, they often don’t realize it.
Her job was to be their advocate. To help draw those stories out of them. To help them prepare for the make-or-break interviews with asylum officers who would determine their fate and the fate of their children.
Back at Lewis & Clark, Tessa has continued to volunteer remotely, doing things such as making sure that data are entered correctly – because anything incorrect on an asylum application can cause a lengthy delay or denial.
Through this experience, Tessa learned first-hand that one person can effect meaningful change.
As she said, “The ‘J.D.’ is that powerful tool you can use to make a difference in the world.”
I’m proud that Tessa plans to become an immigration lawyer, focusing on asylum seekers and victims of violence.
My Oregon - our Oregon - must be a welcoming and inclusive place for all. As you know, it hasn’t always been that way. It wasn’t until 1912 -- 53 years after Oregon’s founding—that women were finally able to exercise our right to vote. And while I was in law school, there was just one woman on the Oregon Supreme Court.
And even though I didn’t think I would ever become a judge (and still don’t!), it was really important to me that she was there.
She was my beacon of hope.
Her name was Betty Roberts. Her courage, grace, and grit inspire me to this day.
After completing her master’s degree in 1962, Betty Roberts applied to but was rejected by the political science doctoral program at the University of Oregon. The chair of the department told her that at thirty-nine, she was too old. And that taxpayers wouldn’t get back their investment in her education by the time she retired.
So she decided to become a lawyer.
A few years after I was born, she started law school at Lewis and Clark’s night program. At the time, she was also raising four children, teaching high school, and running for a seat in the Oregon Legislature.
All on her own.
She won that legislative seat. She spent the next thirteen years fighting gender discrimination, working to protect Oregon’s environment, and starting her own successful law practice.
In 1974, she ran for governor and lost in the primary to Bob Straub. That same year, Oregon Democrats nominated her to face Bob Packwood in the race for U.S. Senate. She lost for a second time that year.
These could have been soul-crushing defeats. Not for this woman of grace and grit -- and incredible moxie.
Three years later, Governor Bob Straub – her former opponent – called and asked her to serve on the Oregon Court of Appeals. She became the first woman to join that court.
Given her esteemed political and legal career, you’d think she would have earned respect on the bench as well. Not so.
For her entire first year, she was ostracized by all of her male colleagues and the entire court staff.
What incredible isolation and loneliness she must have felt. What courage it must have taken to go to work every day in that environment.
Yet, Justice Roberts persisted. And her hard work was recognized by the next governor.
In our entire state’s history, there have been 82 associate justices on the court. All had been men. Governor Vic Atiyeh changed that. He appointed Justice Roberts to the Oregon Supreme Court – making her the first woman in our state’s history on the highest court.
Her tenure was extremely successful.
She was highly respected by all of her colleagues. She authored a number of insightful opinions that bent the arc of justice.
And she gave women like me hope. That some day, and some way, there will be a place at the table — and on the bench — for all of us.
She retired from the Oregon Supreme Court the year I started practicing law.
Yes, progress, especially institutional progress, comes too slowly, if you ask me.
Take, for instance, one of the first bills I signed into law as Governor. It guarantees Oregon children all-day kindergarten. I did so in March of 2015, fifty years after Betty Roberts advocated for it as a legislator in 1965.
And in a few days from now, I look forward to signing into law, the groundbreaking Pay Equity Bill. House Bill 2005 establishes better protections to eliminate the gender pay gap, and makes great strides towards a more equitable and prosperous Oregon.
And, for the first time in this state’s 158-year history, women will soon become the majority on our state’s highest court.
I have appointed Judge Rebecca Duncan to the Oregon Supreme Court. She will join three other women justices, two of whom I have appointed, currently serving on the seven-member court.
I would like to think that Justice Betty Roberts would be very proud of the progress we continue to make.
She is an important hero in Oregon’s history. But you are the heroes of Oregon’s future. We – our state and our nation – need you. We need fighters for justice in and out of the courtroom.
So as your Governor, I hereby charge you, as the next generation of advocates, leaders, and problem-solvers, to:
And fight for justice in all that you do.
Thank you, and congratulations.