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U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s 2010 Commencement Address

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar delivers the Keynote Address

Good morning, everyone. It’s such an honor to be with all of you on this great and special occasion.

When I heard “Pomp and Circumstance” as we came in and looked at the words to “Hail Minnesota,” I thought about past graduations and past moments in my life when everything comes down to one thing: Don’t trip over your own feet as you walk on stage.

I was reminded of the first time I was ever in the White House. I was a prosecutor and was there to introduce Bill Clinton, when he was president, for some big criminal legislation he was introducing. I was standing outside the door and the military band started playing “Hail to the Chief.” On one side I had Janet Reno, then U.S. attorney general, and on the other side, Bill Clinton. I started walking, just as we did today, and all of a sudden I felt this big, big hand on my shoulder, and a voice said, “I know you’re going to do great out there, but when they play that song, I usually go first.” True story. That really did happen to me.

Being here today takes me back to my own law school days. When I was a student at the University of Chicago Law School, the professors were really devoted to the Socratic method. I learned early to be grateful that my last name was so difficult to pronounce. I’d safely ensconce myself between a Jones and a Johnson, look really studious, and then the hour went pretty well for me.

Your Law School is housed in a building named after one of my great friends and political mentors Walter Mondale. I got my start in politics as an intern in Vice President Mondale’s office. I arrived in Washington, bright-eyed and ready to go to work to serve the people, and my first job was to inventory the furniture in every office of every staff member who worked for the Vice President. For two weeks, I had to literally crawl around under chairs and desks, writing down the serial numbers of all the furniture.

Thirty years later, I want to tell you two important lessons I gleaned from that experience. First, for the good of the reputation of your Law School, I am pleased to report that nothing was missing. All the Vice President’s furniture was in order. Second, that internship was my first official job in Washington. This one, as your U.S. Senator, is my second. So always take your internships seriously. You never know where they will lead.

I know that everyone in the audience today is proud of the Law School. It is an amazing institution. And most of all, we are proud of all of you for graduating. This is an occasion for celebration and also relief. But it is also a time for reflection as you think about what comes next. Final exams may be over, but there is one last question that you will probably spend the rest of your lives answering: How should I live my life as a lawyer? As somebody who has been a lawyer for 25 years now, I have a few suggestions I’ll offer up.

I know these are tough economic times. I was talking to the dean, and I personally think things are looking up, but it is a tough time to be out in the job market. Maybe you have your dream job, maybe you don’t have the job you want, maybe you’re still looking for a job. But I encourage you to be perseverant and courageous, because you never know what will happen.

I can tell you in my own situation, there are days in the U.S. Senate when I think of the old Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” where they say, “You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife. You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” Remember that, because one day you may be an intern doing a furniture inventory and the next day you’re a Senator.

When I was growing up, I certainly never expected that I would have the honor of serving in the U.S. Senate. My dad was a newspaper man and my mom was a schoolteacher. But I had parents who believed in the value of education, just like all of the proud moms and dads and grandparents that surround you today. And my parents, much like your parents, always told me that I could do anything I put my mind to.

My parents never stopped believing in me, even when my first job was as a carhop at an A&W root beer stand in Wayzata, Minn., where they made me wear a T-shirt that said “Take home a jug of fun.” Any job you have right now could be better than that! I next went to work at the Bakers Square pie shop in Plymouth, but there my career came to an abrupt end when I spilled 12 iced teas on one customer. That was when I decided to go to law school.

The important thing to remember is that by reaching the important milestone that you’ve reached today, all of you have already demonstrated that you have some really important personality traits that will put you in good standing, regardless of what the future holds and regardless of what your first job may be, or your next. You are determined. You will persevere. You are courageous. And you believe in yourselves.

As you have undoubtedly heard, the Senate Judiciary Committee, which I am a member of, is going to be considering another Supreme Court nomination, so I have been thinking about things that are applicable today as you look at where you are and where you are going.

I think about Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who lived the first years of her life on a ranch in rural Arizona with no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity. By sheer necessity, she learned to mend fences, ride horses, brand cattle, fire a rifle, and drive a truck—all before she turned 13.

I also think about Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was the great-grandson of a slave. His mother was a teacher, and his father worked as a Pullman car waiter before becoming a steward at an all-white country club. Justice Marshall waited tables to help put himself through college, and his mother had to pawn her wedding and engagement rings to pay his entrance fees at Howard University Law School in Washington.

And then there’s Justice Harry Blackmun, who grew up in very modest circumstances in a working class neighborhood in St. Paul and was able to go to Harvard only because he got a scholarship. He had to work his way through Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and I’ll note for the record that Justice Blackmun’s summer jobs included installing windows and delivering milk. Through four years of college and three years of law school, his family never had enough money to bring him home to Minnesota for Christmas.

It’s well known that Justice Blackmun had a very humble manner. Some of us from Minnesota called him the Justice from Lake Wobegon, and Garrison Keillor himself praised him as the “shy person’s Justice.”

Much has been made about the evolution of Justice Blackmun’s opinions over 24 years. He came to the court as Richard Nixon’s “law and order” nominee, having been recommended by another Minnesotan, his childhood friend Warren Berger, and was vetted by none other than William Rehnquist. Some of his staunch conservative supporters were disappointed with many of the decisions he authored in his later years on the bench. One thing that didn’t evolve though all the years, however, was his sense that he was an outsider to the privileged world he had entered.

In his post-retirement oral history, Justice Blackmun said, “I suppose growing up as I did there on the east side of St. Paul, the people I knew were people of no great influence politically or by wealth or otherwise. They lived on the other side of town, and naturally, I probably had empathy for them.”

That quote really resonated with me last year when there was so much brouhaha over President Obama’s use of the term “empathy” when he was describing the qualities he sought in a Supreme Court justice. But I also thought about Justice Blackmun’s courage, and how the shy and sickly little kid who grew up among regular people in a working class neighborhood in Middle America never expected to occupy the position he did.

So my first wish for all of you is that you will continue to surprise yourselves with courage, that you will find inner reserves of strength to draw upon when you are in situations that are daunting, that your law degree will open up opportunities for you that you never expected, and that you will persevere, because you never know where you will end up.

A second thing to think about involves one aspect of law school that I hope you carry with you the rest of your lives. The dean touched on this when he talked about what law school has taught you. Think back on your classes. Think back to those times when the professors called on you to defend a position that you absolutely disagreed with, or made you and a classmate debate opposite sides of a case. Maybe you participated in moot court and had to argue a case where you knew the other side had legitimate arguments in its favor. Or maybe you got to represent actual clients as part of a Law School clinic and had to confront the realization that some of the facts of your case weren’t exactly going in your client’s favor.

What law school teaches you best, I think, is to dig deep into the details of a case or a situation and see the shades of gray. The law won’t always be on your side. More likely, some parts of the law will be on your side and some won’t. As an advocate, you may be called upon to minimize the parts of the case that don’t go your way, or you may have to try to explain away the case law that suggests a different outcome from the one you want. But the best lawyers still see those shades of gray, even when they are called upon to advocate for one side.

I bring this up because I spend my weekdays in Washington where, despite the fact that the city is practically overrun with lawyers, lots of them, including many of my colleagues in Congress, have forgotten this simple rule from law school: There are almost always shades of gray. The truth is rarely cut and dried. And no one person, or political party for that matter, has a monopoly on truth. But you hear people these days on different television programs calling other people or ideas fascist or socialist. You hear people shouting at each other, as if the loudest voice is automatically the one that should win the debate. That’s not a recipe for a lot of bipartisan compromise, or for legitimate efforts to find common ground.

We’re living in an era when everybody is online. We have 24/7 news coverage and a million different sources where we can get information. So you can choose, if you want, to only read the blogs or websites that tend to cover world events the way you’d like to hear about them. It’s like picking referees that will only call the ball for your team, which is precisely what the New Orleans Saints did this year when they played the Vikings, if you ask me.

What I’m asking you today is to not do that. I’m asking you to remember the spirit of law school in this respect, to remember that it was your job to think through both sides of an argument and to give credence to the legitimate points for the other side. I’m asking you not to cut yourself off from different viewpoints by seeking opinions only from people who already agree with you. I’m asking you to engage, rather than retreating to the opposite corner of the boxing ring.

As President Obama said in his commencement speech at the University of Michigan recently, we must never be afraid of expanding our perspective. He said: “If you’re somebody who only reads the New York Times, try glancing at a page of the Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website.”

This brings me to another story about our fellow Minnesotan, Justice Blackmun. His oldest daughter gave him a copy of Scott Turow’s classic book One L for his 70th birthday. Many of you may have read that book as you were getting ready for law school. Justice Blackmun actually wrote a note to Scott Turow after reading the book.

He wrote, “Surely there is a way to teach law, strict and demanding though it might be, with some glimpse of its humaneness and basic good–the art of getting along together–as well as its demands for perfection. You so properly point out that there is room for flexibility and different answers, and that not all is black or white.” He ended his note with this: “If I ever learned anything on the bench, it is that.”

I hope you will carry this spirit of law school with you, the spirit of constant engagement and good-faith efforts to reconcile different views, wherever life takes you next.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, and please don’t tell your professors or the dean or the president of the University of Minnesota who invited me here. The secret is this: When I look back on my time as a lawyer, and especially my time as a prosecutor, what I remember most about my commitment to the Constitution and equal justice and where I got my core beliefs (and I really hate to say this to all of you new graduates), almost none of it had much to do with what I learned in law school. It was not from the dusty books I read or the cases I slogged through.

Rather, I learned from my grandfather who worked 1,500 feet underground in the mines of Ely, Minn., his whole life. I learned from my mom who taught school until she was 70. And I learned from my dad who, as a journalist, always, to tweak an old phrase, “wrote truth to power.” And finally, I learned about justice from the experiences I had after law school, on the front lines, making decisions in difficult situations.

Let me end with one of those experiences on the front lines that I remember best. It involved a judge named Roland Amundson. He sat on the second highest court in Minnesota, the Court of Appeals, and was very well respected, a leader in the judiciary.

Judge Amundson had been a lawyer before he was a judge, and when one of his clients died, the client had asked Amundson to take over the trust for his surviving daughter. This daughter was very disabled, a woman in her 30s who lived in a world, and still does, of stuffed animals and dolls.

So here I am, the chief prosecutor of Hennepin County, and one day a case comes to our office from a woman who took care of this young woman in her home. The caretaker said the Judge had been stealing money from this trust. So we started to look into it, not quite believing it was true.

I still remember that Christmas Eve when one of our prosecutors called me, crouched down in his car outside Amundson’s house and whispering into his cell phone: “There’s no way he can afford this house on a judge’s salary. It’s impossible.”

So we dug into it and found that, systematically, the Judge had been stealing money from this trust over a period of years. He’d say he was doing work on this disabled woman’s house when he was actually installing marble floors in his own house. He’d say he was buying her a new bed and medical equipment when he was actually buying Greek statues for himself from an art gallery in California. He basically took all of the money from that trust, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, while he was a sitting judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

It was fairly easy to prove the facts of the case. But as with so many white-collar cases, the real issue was sentencing. We were very careful to ask for the exact sentence that would normally be asked for according to the guidelines in a case where that much money was stolen: something like four or five years in jail. But when we got to the sentencing hearing—I’ll never forget—the courtroom was packed with the Judge’s friends. On our side were the woman’s guardian and the conservator.

Judge Amundson had 20 witnesses, including a minister at the largest Lutheran church in the Twin Cities and a sitting judge, to testify for his character, and my personal favorite, a former Miss America to testify in his defense. Of course, that didn’t bother me, a former Ms. Skyway News of March 1988!

This hearing went on and on, and we didn’t know what Judge Hopper, the sentencing judge, was going to do. During a break I went out and sat on a bench outside of the courtroom and, literally, sat with my head in my hands, thinking “This cannot happen. We just cannot lose this.” And all of a sudden these two guys walked up. They were wearing hats and looked kind of ragged, and they said, “Is this where that judge is getting sentenced?” I said, “Yeah.” And they said, “Can we go in?” I said, “Yeah, you can go in. You’ve got to take your hats off, but you can go in.” They said, “We just came down from drug court, and we figure we’ve gone to jail before, so he should go to jail.”

They went in and sat right in the front row, and Judge Hopper later told me that he remembered them. They were the only African-Americans in the courtroom except the court reporter. They listened to everything and would sometimes nod their heads and sometimes shake their heads. When there was finally a break, they left. But they came back about 10 minutes later and told me, “You know, we had other things to do. But, man, you need us in there.”

We ended up getting the sentence that we asked for, and to this day I think of those two guys as our guardian angels in that courtroom. They didn’t say a word to the judge or to the rest of the courtroom, but for me their mere presence sent a clear message: When people break the law, they need to be held accountable, no matter who they are or who they hire as their lawyer, whether they committed the crime with a crow bar or a computer, whether they did it in an office or on a street corner. These two guys were there as guardian angels of our justice system, to say that we can’t have two systems of justice, one for the rich and powerful and one for everyone else.

That experience was something I will never forget and is the basis for what I ask you to do next: Seek justice. Wherever you go, and whatever kinds of jobs you hold, whether your clients are rich or poor, whether you represent the state or the defendant, conduct yourself well, pay attention to that “still, small voice” inside you that is your conscience, and do justice.

As you leave this institution now and begin to figure out how to truly live your life as lawyers, I hope you will remember these values, keep them strong, and keep them with you.

Of course, you haven’t learned these values from my speech. You learned them from your parents, grandparents, friends. You learned them from everyone in the audience today who is bursting with pride at your accomplishment. Never forget that, or the debt you owe them, or the debt you owe these professors up here on this stage.

As the famous Isaac Newton quote goes, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Well, your family and friends and professors are precisely the giants whose shoulders you have stood on in order to accomplish all that you have today.

Remember: have courage, persevere. You will constantly surprise yourself about where you end up as long as you have the courage to keep waiting for opportunity. Maybe if one of you had been a lawyer in the enforcement division at the Securities and Exchange Commission, someone like Bernard Madoff would have been caught years ago. Maybe if one of you had been a lawyer monitoring compliance with quality control guidelines at BP, there wouldn’t have been a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe if one of you had been a lawyer at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, defective cars from Toyota would have been recalled much sooner.

Whether you go on to work in the public, private, or nonprofit sector, we look to you to be stewards of responsible, effective government and guardians of the public square–a place where people freely come together to debate and deliberate, to learn from one another and make decisions.

If I leave you with one thing from this speech, I hope you remember how important it is to listen to each other, to discuss with each other, to keep engaging with other people, even people with whom you disagree. After all, if we shut out all who disagree with us and hunker down only with the like-minded, then we lose the capacity to learn, to grow, to broaden our horizons. And we lose that rarest of things–the humility and willingness to change our minds when faced with new facts or different viewpoints.

Your Law School education has taught you that, and so much more. Welcome to this illustrious profession. We congratulate you, we honor your achievement, and we celebrate your success.

This article was featured in e-Perspectives, spring 2010

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