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2011 Commencement Address by Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale (’56)

Walter Mondale

Former Vice President Walter Mondale (’56) delivers the Keynote Address

As we all know, under Dean Wippman's marvelous leadership, our Law School has impressively raised its national stature and is getting better all of the time. We salute him.

Of course, we also thank our magnificent faculty for its genius and commitment—you are the best.

As you may know, I love our named Law School, your even-better-named hockey team, and, of course, the magnificent Theatre of the Relatively Talentless—the old TORT team.

I am breaking a record today at our Law School that I don't think can ever be broken. Over the past 47 years, I have delivered six of your commencement addresses for an average of one every seven years—apparently the minimum interval required to overcome the pain of the last speech.

We salute your family and friends, who have done so much to help you, who are here to rejoice in your graduation from one of America's greatest law schools. Both for what our graduates have accomplished and for the wonderful career that lies ahead of you and for all that you will do for the cause of decency and justice in your lifetime, we celebrate this special day in your life.

As new lawyers and soon-to-be officers of the court, you are heirs to the profession Americans hold most responsible for protecting our precious system of freedom and justice. As colonies, our courts were seen as representing the interests of the crown. But with nationhood, our courts have become instruments of the law in the service of justice independent from the government. Our Supreme Court and the federal court system quickly became the arbiter of the Constitution and the law even as against the Congress and the states, greatly strengthening the growth and stability of our new nation.

These bold actions by our early judicial leaders and legal scholars were driven by the fear that our government would exercise unaccountable and abusive power. They demanded checks and balances on power because they famously said, "Men are not angels," and, therefore, we needed "auxiliary protections." It was a great anomaly. We needed government not only to protect us from danger, but also, we needed rules to protect us from the excesses of our own government. The founders wanted the judiciary to save us from ourselves, but at the same time, the Courts are expected to apply the rule of law handed down by those in political power.

From the start, great lawyers were at the forefront in implementing these fundamental principles, and through the generations, our profession, however imperfect, has been expected to take care that justice flourishes here in our land of the free and the home of the brave. That challenge will in part soon now rest with you.

There is a lot to do. In America, we are facing a yawning justice gap widely lamented by lawyers, judges, and by many respected studies.

For Americans with legal protection, this is a wonderful country—but for those without protection, it may be quite another matter that should concern us all.

When I was a young attorney general, I received a request from the Florida attorney general asking me to cosign an amicus brief on behalf of the State of Florida, seeking to reaffirm the old Betts v. Brady rule that the right to counsel existed only if you could afford it. So, Mr. Gideon, a name now famous in law, was charged with a felonious petty misdemeanor. He had no money and, of course, no lawyer. His request for counsel was denied, his trial lasted two hours, he put up no defense, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and, thanks to the help of Yale Kamisar, a wonderful member of our faculty, 22 attorneys general submitted an amicus brief urging the Court to find that the Constitution requires the assistance of lawyers for indigent felony defendants. In the now-famous Gideon case, the Court rules as we requested. Gideon on retrial, now provided with good counsel, and after just a few hours of trial was freed after the judge threw the case out for lack of evidence.

The difference in Gideon's life between having counsel and not having it was five years in prison.

Today's graduates do not have to be told about the consequences of unprotected rights. Our Law School has one of the best law clinic practices in the nation. You have studied and tried actual cases. You have a fresh idea of what justice requires.

You know that the Gideon story plays out hundreds of times over in states across the country. Chief Justice Gildea recently warned that Minnesota's public defender system is in a state of "flat out crisis." The current number of lawyers, she said, simply cannot serve the current number of defendants who qualify for their services.

States are now routinely failing to appoint counsel for people who are qualified. If Gideon faced criminal charges in Florida today, he might well be denied a public defender.

As you also know, the criminal-civil distinction is often of only theoretical interest. In civil cases without decent counsel, you can lose your children, lose your home, or your job or your reputation, be committed to a mental institution or be deported. Lots of things can unjustly happen to you with life-or-death consequences.

Not only have funds been disappearing for civil legal assistance, but a tsunami wave of crippling amendments are undercutting the very ability of public lawyers to defend their clients from asserting rights and remedies routinely and widely available to the rest of the nation: no class actions, no suits against government, no litigating on behalf of prisoners or undocumented aliens or any challenge to executive orders, no legal protection of personal choices, anything, it seems, that someone doesn't like. All of this creates, in my mind, a shameful second-class system of law that no American of means would tolerate, that mocks our most sacred goal of equal justice under law.

Equal justice is a conservative concept—denial of it is a radical concept. If we want all Americans to believe in civility, to trust our system for peacefully resolving issues, to eschew the violent and corrupt; if we want every American to believe that he or she is as fully an American as is any other American, that their dignity and respect are fully honored; if we believe in this, then we will stand for justice.

America is a wonderful nation, the best in the world as far as I am concerned. Help us remain true to our values of decency and justice; and, while you are at it, have a great life. Thanks.