“A moment of choice is a moment of truth. It’s the testing point of our character and competence.” – Stephen Covey
Later today, at the invitation of the Ohio Supreme Court, I will have the honor of speaking in Columbus to all the law school graduates in Ohio and throughout the nation who passed the February 2023 Ohio Bar Exam. Here’s my message.
Three bricklayers were asked: “What are you doing?’ The first said, “I am laying bricks.” The second said, “I am building a cathedral.” The third said, “I am building a house of God.” The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.
Today I ask you to think beyond your job and career. I’m asking you to think about your calling.
You are entering the legal profession at a moment when some of our most cherished values as Americans are at a crossroads: civility, decency, democracy, and justice. In all of our lives, there are moments of truth, and as new lawyers, now is your moment of truth.
In 1950, long before any of you were born, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy experienced a meteoric rise to fame and power when he charged that “hundreds” of “known communists” were in the U.S. State Department. McCarthy, and his followers and enablers, convinced millions of Americans that communists had infiltrated every aspect of American life. Behind closed-door hearings, McCarthy bullied, intimidated, and lied his way to power, all under the false guise of patriotism, destroying many careers and lives of Americans in the process.
In 1954 he held Senate hearings charging the U.S. Army of being “soft” on communism. He screamed at witnesses, and declared that one highly decorated general was a “disgrace” to his uniform. Joseph Welch was a soft-spoken lawyer who represented the Army. McCarthy charged that Fred Fisher (no relation), a young associate in Welch’s law firm, had been a member of the National Lawyers Guild that was a “legal arm of the Communist Party.” Welch responded “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” Welch then stated the immortal words that ultimately helped end McCarthy's career, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
Decades later, we are living through a similar defining moment in history. As our nation becomes more diverse, we can find the shared values and common ground that make us all human and connected, or, by our silence, we can allow demagogues to exploit our differences to divide and separate us from one another.
The January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol that took place while you were in your first year of law school was a lasting lesson in the importance of the rule of law. It is a reminder of the fragility of our democracy. Many of the violent insurrectionists carried American flags under the false guise of patriotism- but let’s be clear- their actions were a direct assault on the heart of our democracy and our long history of peaceful transitions of Presidential power.
Wrapping yourself in our flag doesn’t make you a patriot. Living up to its values does.
All people of good faith should stand firm on our principles of decency and democracy and speak up for them in moments like these. Now, more than ever, we need lawyer-leaders like each of you whose calling is to defend these values and the rule of law. Draw your line in the sand like Joseph Welch did in 1954.
Use your law degree not only to make a difference for your clients. Use it also to make a difference in the lives of people you will never meet.
Across the nation, hate, prejudice, bigotry, and disinformation are on the rise because of the dangerously combustible combination of demagogues who normalize hate and extremism and disregard truth and facts, and the use of social media to spread hate and lies instantaneously throughout the world.
We must view every attack on someone because of the color of their skin, the country where they or their ancestors were born, who they worship, or who they love, as an attack on all of us and the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country.
37 years ago, as an Ohio State Senator, I authored Ohio’s Hate Crime Law, premised on the belief that a crime against someone because of the color of their skin, their religion, or their ethnic origin, was not only a crime against a person or a family; it was also a crime against society, and deserved stiffer punishment. Years later, as Ohio Attorney General, I had the unique privilege of defending the law’s constitutionality before the Ohio Supreme Court.
When there is a hate crime that targets Black or Brown people or those in the LGBTQ+ community, it shouldn’t be up to the NAACP or the Human Rights Campaign to call it out. It should be all of us. When Kanye West and white supremacists spew hateful anti-Semitism, it shouldn’t be up to the Anti-Defamation League to call it out. It should be all of us. Silence is hate’s best friend.
Fidelity to the rule of law does not mean that the law is always just. It is not. We all have work to do in making it better. But when our nation has achieved anything of consequence, it has done so most often through civil debate, mutual respect, and measured compromise. We are at our best when we are showing humility, listening to other views, respectfully debating differences, and building consensus.
Take time to think and decide what kind of leader you want to be. Think about the skills we need to discern truth, to uncover and reveal bias, and communicate across differences. We need leaders who are trained in the law, know how to discern what is true and what is a lie, and have the courage to speak up when our democracy and basic human decency are threatened.
So many of you came to law school not only to learn law but to live justice. To advocate for fixing what’s broken. To forcefully call out injustice and decry inequality.
So think of yourselves as more than lawyers. Think of yourselves as custodians of civility, defenders of democracy, and guardians of justice.
That’s your calling that goes beyond your job and your career.
We are at our best when, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, we fight injustice anywhere because it is a threat to justice everywhere.
It is not hyperbole to say that our hope for the future of civility, decency, democracy, and justice lies with you. The world needs you now more than ever.
Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay Committed to Living Justice.
Have a great day. Have a great week.
Dean, Cleveland State University College of Law | Cleveland State University
Joseph C. Hostetler-BakerHostetler Chair in Law
For copies of past messages, please go to this link: Monday Morning Messages.
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