Commencement Speech by Professor Fred Hart

May 15, 2010

An invitation to speak at an event is always an honor, but your invitation was special. As you know, most of my professional life has been at this law school, and I could not have been more pleased than to have the opportunity to speak at my second home.

Over the years, I have attended many commencements – over 40 at this school – and others at which our children and grandchildren were graduating. At most of them the speaker was someone who I admired, and my recollection is that all of them gave excellent talks. Yet, I must admit that I have been unable to recall much of what they said. From my experience, I am confident that whatever I say here today will soon be forgotten.

Indeed, perhaps we should not have a speech at all. Perhaps it would be better if we substituted a few minutes of silent meditation.

However, having scaled this artificial mountain, I feel entitled to subject you to a few thoughts.

Much has happened since I was a young man.  I was 16 when the first television was produced for the consumer market. I was 28 when commercial airlines began the fly jet aircraft, and 40 when we landed a man on the moon.  In my 50s the personal computer and the cordless phone appeared.  Antibiotics became available in the late 40s;   in 1956 there was a vaccine against one of the most feared diseases of my childhood - Polio. Pacemakers were invented about the same time. Artificial knees and hips have been developed, and organ transplants are now fairly routine.

Scientific advancements have been truly amazing. Much of what has happened would have seemed utterly impossible when I was a youth.

Has society progressed during those years, or only science? In some respects, the story is discouraging. Poverty was attacked with significant success in the late 1960s – the percentage of those whose incomes were below the poverty level decreased for about 24% to about 16 or 17% - , but it has risen since then except among the elderly. Worldwide, UNICEF estimates that 24,000 children die each day from hunger.

A criminal justice system that puts 2.3 million adults and 92,000 juveniles in prison is just not working.

I had just turned 12 when we entered World War II in 1941. The war continued until I was almost 16.  When I was 20, in 1950, the Korean War began, lasting until 1953. In my 30s there was there was Vietnam, starting sometime in the early 1960s and continuing until 1975; then peace for 15 years, except, of course for our invasions of Grenada, Panama and the Dominican Republic; Desert Storm came in 1990, followed by the second Gulf War in 2003 which continues to this day, as does our involvement in Afghanistan.

We have been at war for fifty years of my life.

We are not a peaceful nation.

There has been, however, one true social revolution during my life.

While I was in college in our nation’s capitol from 1947 to 1951, the District of Columbia schools were segregated. The only legitimate theatre was shut down by Actor’s Equity because Afro-Americans could sit only in the balcony.  The restaurant at National airport refused to serve African Americans until 1948, and other restaurants, hotels, movie theatres were segregated as was housing.

In 1954, while I was in law school Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was decided, and the companion case, Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954), ordered the desegregation of the District of Columbia schools. Then the long torturous process of eliminating Jim Crow law in the South and de facto segregation in the North began.

The African American experience with segregation is perhaps the most dramatic, and certainly the best known, but our country’s treatment of minorities has generally been deplorable.

We took the land of the American Indians – the Native Americans. We infected them with disease and shot them. In 1832, the Supreme Court recognized the sovereignty of Indian tribes and nations in Worchester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832), but future cases limited the powers of the tribes. We put them on reservation, moving many from their ancestral homes. We provided them with poor medical facilities and schools. We kept them out of the main stream, out of the professions and out of meaningful participation in our society. Our movie industry typically portrayed them as savages impeding the legitimate Anglo aims of taking their land.  It was not until 1924 that Native Americans were granted citizenship.

Mendez v. Westminister School District, 64 F.Supp. 544 (C.D. Calif. 1946),  decided in the 1946 (7 years before Brown v. Board of Education, ordered the admission of Mexican Americans to the “white” schools in Orange County California. The 9th Circuit affirmance noted that Asians and Indian were also in segregated schools. (Thurgood Marshall was one of the lawyers representing Mendez on appeal.)   In Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954), decided in 1954, the same year as Brown,  the Supreme Court found that Mexican Americans were systematically excluded from grand and petite juries. For decades LULAC, the G.I. Forum, the ACLU, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and other organizations fought for equal treatment for Hispanics in California and the southwest. Hispanics of my generation were refused admission to restaurants and other establishment and saw signs, “No Mexican Served.”  Id.

Our country has not been kind to other minorities. Consider the internment of the American Citizen of Japanese heritage during the Second World War.  Gays, Jews, Italians, Asians, Puerto Ricans, Moslems and other minorities have been subject to discrimination, and, in many cases, still are.

Perhaps the most widespread example of discrimination has been our country’s treatment of Women. It is easy to forget that women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. Until recently there were few women physicians, lawyers, corporate executives, law professors, university presidents or politicians. For years, women were forced into a inferior roles.

During my lifetime, the scientific advances have been spectacular, but, I suggest that our relatively recent greater acceptance of diversity has been more profound and more important to the progress of the human species. It was part of our continuing evolution.

The evolution will continue. There will be the day, not in the distant future when we will not care about the gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual preference of a candidate for office will not be notice. A day when we will not care.

The paleontologist and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin talks of the evolution of men and women. Noting that our physical evolution is unlikely to result in great changes, he speaks of the evolution of the spirit:

  • From east to west, evolution is occupied in a richer and more complex domain, constructing, with all minds together, mind. Beyond all nations and races, the inevitable taking-as-whole of mankind has already begun.

Teilhard talks of a higher form of consciousness which will result in all humans sharing certain beliefs, beliefs of justice, fairness, equality. He talks of the existence of a society in which people will be more individualized and that respect for other will be infinite. The evolutionary goal is called by Teilhard the omega point, and the attraction to it is love.

I suggest that there is not a better example of Chardin’s observations than the diminution of discrimination during the second half of the last century.

During your lives, there will be great scientific advances: Perhaps the discovery of an alternate form of energy totally unimagined at the present time; perhaps a solution to global warming; perhaps a method of feeding the world so that hunger disappears; perhaps the colonization of a different planet. Genetic and stem cell research which has already begun shows great promise.

Of greater importance than the scientific breakthroughs, you will also see a continuation of the evolution of the human spirit, and you will participate in that evolution in a special way because you will be members of the legal profession.

But, how do you fit into this evolution of the human spirit?

For a moment compare yourselves with those in other countries and in the United States who are hungry, ill-housed and without any real opportunities. They will worry about having something to eat for dinner; you will decide what you want to eat. For them, the very existence of a place to sleep will be in doubt; you will be deciding in which neighborhood you want to live.

There are very few in the world who stand, as do you, facing a bright and promising future. You are a member of a privileged class.

That you are here today is a tribute to your own efforts, but I know that each of you would proclaim that others have helped you along the way and are entitled to share in the credit for your success. Those who supported you ask nothing in return, and place no responsibilities on you, nor do those of us who have taught you. We want you to be free and unencumbered. (Except, of course, for your student loans)

The State of New Mexico has invested well over $1.5 million in your education, money that could have gone to the improvement of our public school, our health clinics, senior centers. In large part the investment is because of a recognition that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue an education to the highest level of which they are capable; but, in part it is an investment in the future of the state. Again,   there is no obligation imposed upon you.

But, you will freely and gladly accept obligations a few months from now when you take the lawyer’s oath and become a lawyer. Whatever you choose do as a lawyer, your life will affect every other member of the profession and every person in society, because we are so linked to one another that every action by one of us affects all of us.

It is said that the flapping of a single butterfly's wings in California produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. That change causes the atmosphere to diverge from what it would have done. As a result, in a month's time, a tornado that would have devastated the Kansas doesn't happen.

A similar relationship exists among humans. What you do today will affect all of us. We will be different as a result.

I believe that the law school has gotten better since I came here in 1966. Who’s responsible for that? I suggest to you that everyone who has worked here – the deans, the faculty, the staff, the students, the central administration, those who clean our offices, those who fix the plumbing. And who is to say who contributed the most? The law school community, the legal profession, all of society depends upon the work of many. Each of us depends on everyone else.

What you do as a lawyer, even though it may seem unimportant, will affect the future of the profession and the future of society.

Remain cognizant of the good work that lawyers have done in the past, and continue to believe that you can do good as a lawyer. In a country where the rule of law is paramount, lawyers are often the actors who make us a better people. If you don’t believe that, think about the role of our profession in fighting discrimination.

Truly, what you do as a lawyer, even though it may seem to have little relationship to changing the world will affect not only the future of our profession but also the future of society.

A few weeks ago one of our sons who is a lawyer said “no one taught me in law school how hard the work is.”  That’s true, but it is easy to be a good lawyer. If you just do your job the best you can, and if you have respect, and love, for your clients, your fellow lawyers, judges, clerks and all in whom you come in contact, you will be a good lawyer, and in some little way you will change the world for the better.

These thoughts are far too serious for this afternoon. The reality of the day is the event itself. It is a day that for each of you should “glitter like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy.” Some sadness because it marks a close of an epoch in your lives and because the relationships with the friends you have made here will never be quite the same.

But this is a day of triumph for you. The trial is over and you have won. Today the Faculty of the University of New Mexico Law School recognizes that you have successfully completed your three year course of studies, and that you are entitled to receive the degree of Doctor of Jurisprudence.

Indeed, it is a time for cheers and oles; a time for hosannas and hallelujahs.