[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Ladies and gentlemen, the 2021 Cornell Law School Procession has begun.
Leading the procession are the college banner bearers, Nathalie Marie Greenfield and Joshua Howard. Following the banner bearers are the degree marshals, Jose Francisco Pio Lopez Vila representing the LLM Degree candidates and Eirene Haeyeon Kim representing the JD Degree candidates. Following is the symbol banner bearer, Apriele Minott. Next are the members of the Class of 2021.
At this time, we acknowledge and thank the Cornell Law School faculty and administrators, who are next in the procession. They are led by George Hay, the Charles Frank Reavis Senior Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, followed by Dean of Students, Markeisha Miner, and the Interim Dean for Cornell Law School, Professor Jens David Ohlin.
JENS DAVID OHLIN: Please be seated. Good afternoon. Law School faculty and administration, cherished family and friends, members of Cornell Law School's great Class of 2021, welcome to the 134th Convocation of Cornell Law School, socially distanced edition. I'm Jens Ohlin, Interim Dean and Professor at Cornell Law School. Well, you made it. It's been quite a year. Just a few weeks ago, we were uncertain whether we'd be able to celebrate your achievements in person, but you've persevered. After a long year of online hybrid and in-person classes, you have all shown remarkable flexibility, ingenuity, and tenacity.
Today marks an important transition in our collective experience. It is the first in-person convocation for Cornell Law School since May 2019 and our first major community in-person event in more than a year and a half. I think it's a moment to recognize what has changed since the first time you walked through the doors of Myron Taylor Hall, but it's also, I believe, an opportunity to celebrate what has not changed during that time.
You carried on in your pursuit of an education, as generations of Cornell students have before. And today, you join their ranks and embark on a life in the law. You answered Socratic questions during your 1L classes, managed the stress of your first semester of final exams, served clients in legal clinics, edited scholarship on a journal, and represented Cornell with distinction in moot court competitions. You probably also started speaking on Zoom while you were still on mute and cursed at your cat while your microphone was on. OK, maybe that was me. I have five cats, who like to be on camera.
Perhaps you even showed up to class one day, as I did, as a first year law student, having read the wrong assignment and spent the whole class period praying that your picture would magically disappear from your professor's seating chart. Well, I survived, and so did you. While we celebrate here today, I think it is appropriate and necessary for us to acknowledge that the past year has been one of hardship for many people.
During the early days of the pandemic, filled with fear and anxiety, we all worried about our medical care providers working on the front lines. I was especially moved by the words of one doctor, Craig Smith, who serves as the chief of surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital, who would send a daily email to his medical staff. At the time, last March, hospitals were running out of personal protective equipment, and New York City was facing the first wave of the COVID pandemic. Doctors and nurses were scared, and this is what Dr. Smith told them.
So what can we do? Load the sled, check the traces, feed Bolto, and mush on. Our cargo must reach Nome. Remember that our family, friends, and neighbors are scared, idle, out of work, and feel impotent. Anyone working in health care still enjoys the rapture of action. It's a privilege. We mush on. Dr. Smith's words were wise and comforting. That phrase, "the rapture of action," stuck with me and, in important ways, communicated the freedom associated with influencing one's destiny rather than being at the mercy of what the universe throws our way.
Although the task at hand might be difficult or its achievement uncertain, there is always comfort and, indeed, pleasure in knowing that one has an active role to play in the great unfolding. That is the rapture of action. But it isn't just medical professionals who have participated in consequential events this year. Our political and legal systems were the subject of unprecedented disruptions, and recent events brought to the surface and to public consciousness many layers of injustice.
The images broadcast on television and on the internet were often too painful to watch, as they reminded many of us that some of humanity's worst mistakes were capable of endless repetition. Some of you spoke to me eloquently about the pain and trauma associated with that realization and your desire to see lasting change in our society and in our communities.
As we struggle to come to terms with this work, it is useful to remember that we, too, enjoy the rapture of action. Lawyers are problem-solvers. And whether you work for a corporation, a law firm, the government, or an individual, you'll be called upon to offer legal advice to those who are vulnerable. As lawyers, we enjoy access to specialized information and skills, the book of legal knowledge. And we deploy that training on behalf of clients who trust us to represent their interests with wisdom, compassion, and courage. It is a privilege to be a lawyer rather than a client, to represent rather than be represented.
When I look out across the stadium at your faces, I see young professionals, who are seized by the rapture of action, and who will work hard to improve the position of their clients, and to make the world a better place. It's easy to maintain a sense of purpose when everything is going great. You're winning cases, your clients are making lots of money, and when both Justice Alito and Justice Sotomayor agree that your argument is brilliant. It's when times are tough and the road is rocky that we need to work just a little bit harder to find the glory in our endeavor.
If in speaking these words, we have placed a weighty burden on your shoulders, please remember that you have the capacity to succeed. Indeed, after your education at Cornell Law School, we know in our hearts that you are the best-trained and most morally-based lawyers this nation has produced.
As each of you walks in front of us today, our prudent public health guidelines will prevent me from shaking your hands or handing you a diploma. But make no mistake, as you turn to your peers and to our faculty for a moment of individual recognition, you will then leave the stage as a lawyer in the best sense and as a Cornellian forever.
Thank you for making us proud, and remember that you'll always have a home in Myron Taylor Hall. Congratulations, and mush on.
We will now be hearing from two of our graduates this afternoon, both of them elected by their peers to speak today. One represents the Juris Doctor class, the second represents the Master of Laws program. Speaking first will be our JD graduate, Irene Haeyeon Kim.
Irene has been an engaged student leader throughout her time at the Law School. She has served as president of the Cornell Law Student Association, Executive Editor of The Cornell Law Review, Diversity Committee Member on the Moot Court Board of Advocates, Assistant Judicial Codes Counselor, and Ambassador in the Office of Admissions. She earned her Bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago. And after graduation, she will return home to California to sit for the bar exam before joining Latham and Watkins. Please welcome Irene.
EIRENE HAEYEON KIM: Whew, OK. Hello, Class of 2021. And to our loved ones watching, I'll attempt to explain to you what I've observed of your graduates in the past three years. And for my classmates, who are now shifting in your seats, don't worry. I'm not going to reveal who heinously attempted the Mixer Sixers, whose awful 1L [INAUDIBLE] call that I still remember, who owned those elevated surfaces at level B, who among us was suspiciously too good at trivia, and who completely tanked at [INAUDIBLE] karaoke nights, if I wanted to do a roast I would need more than two miss for some of you and at least an hour for most.
Law School was mentally challenging. And yet, despite the mental rigor, I've seen you all produce some of the most beautiful results. Saving tenants from eviction during the pandemic, fighting for the truth of COVID-19 statistics, saving people from persecution, and fighting for those on death row. However, what has made me most proud to be your colleague isn't the high-quality results you've achieved, but the manner in which you did it.
A few months ago my mentor, being a lawyer himself, gave me some advice. He told me that you'll come to find as you, advance in your practice, that there are a lot of good lawyers out there, but there are so few good lawyers. So be a good lawyer. And I thought, well, that's obvious. Of course I'm going to try to be a good lawyer. But I understood what he really meant, after watching Professor Celia Bigoness not only give incredible legal advice to our clinic clients, but also be a caring and compassionate person to our clients.
And through the leadership and guidance from our amazing and caring professors, like Celia and like Jacqueline Kelley-Widmer, to name just a few, I witnessed many of you be good lawyers. When you were at your most tired and when you were under the most pressure, you still gave all of your love and energy to your clients and also to your classmates, helping out when they were sick, busy taking care of their families, or when they simply just needed you, no questions asked.
50, years ago my grandparents left Korea for the US, where they held multiple jobs. My parents, in turn, moved to a country where they didn't know the language, but worked hard from working in a small convenience store to jobs that gave me and my siblings every opportunity we could ever ask for. Oops, I'm done with that one. I say this partly out of a selfish desire to honor my parents and my grandparents, but also in the hopes that those of you listening, regardless of your background, whether you're an immigrant or a fifth generation American, can identify with the sacrifices that come with working endless hours.
And I know that your work helped all of us get to where we are today. And through that hardship, you still brought constant love and support to every life you've touched, just like my grandparents and my parents. And that kind of love and dedication isn't universal. And that love and dedication with what you led your lives radiates through your loved ones, who are sitting here today graduating-- my colleagues, who display the same tenacity to love despite the hardships that come their way and who will also be those few good lawyers in the world making a difference.
To my classmates, the fact that I can call many of you not just my colleagues, but my closest friends, is the greatest honor of all. I'm sorry. Congrats to you all. Cheers to never needing GroupMe ever again. And here's the beginning or the continuance of good and happy times for everyone. Thank you.
JENS DAVID OHLIN: Thank you, Eirene. Our LM speaker, Chawisa Laicharoenwat, comes to Ithaca from the kingdom of Thailand, where she is admitted to practice law. She earned her bachelor's degree from Thammasat University in Thailand and earned an LM in banking and financial law from Boston University. While at Cornell, she has volunteered with the new Ithaca tenants unit, helping clients navigate housing disputes under the direction of a supervising attorney. After graduation, she plans to sit for the New York State Bar, after which she'll join Ernst and Young Law in Sydney, Australia. Please welcome Chawisa.
CHAWISA LAICHAROENWAT: Hi, everyone. This is Chawisa, and I would like to congratulate everyone graduating today. This year was a very unusual year with so many challenges, but we made it. And all of us to celebrate how far we've come. Some of us are sitting here, thinking about a bar exam, new jobs, or whatever is next. It might feel like that once we finish one thing, there's always more thing to do. We should all remember to take the time to enjoy the little things in life.
Enjoy the moment, like when we got accepted to Cornell, or like when we made our first friend here, or like when we're done with our last exam, and we could finally put down our coffee pot. For me, it was a very tough journey, but I'm so happy to have gone through all this. And I will cherish all the friends I made along the way. Everyone, be proud of yourself, pursue your passions, and congratulations.
JENS DAVID OHLIN: Thank you, Chawisa. Our faculty speaker for today is John Blume, the Samuel Leiowitz Professor of Trial Techniques and the Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project. He teaches criminal procedure, evidence, and federal appellate practice and supervises the Capital Punishment and Juvenile Justice Clinics.
Professor Blume is author and co-author of numerous publications in the fields of capital punishment, habeas corpus, criminal procedure, and evidence, and he has argued many cases before the US Supreme Court as well as the second, fourth, fifth, seventh, ninth, and 11th circuits. He has litigated more than 50 capital cases at trial on direct appeal and in state and federal post-conviction proceedings. Please welcome Professor John Blume.
JOHN BLUME: I want to thank the Class of 2021 for asking me to make a few remarks on this very important day in your life. So let me start with the elephant in the football stadium. I know this was not the last three semesters of Law School you thought you were going to have. I also know this isn't the graduation you thought you were going to have, sitting here socially distanced in a mask, without a champagne ceremony paid by Cornell waiting for you. But as others have said, you made it. And I know I speak for all of my colleagues when I commend you for your grit and perseverance. We are extremely proud of each and every one of you. Are all special people.
Now I'm going to do something a little bit unusual in a graduation speech. I'm going to ask a small favor of each and every one of you. I want you to promise to change the world. So I know that sounds daunting, so I want you to say it with me. I promise to change the world. Ready? Say it with me. I promise to change the world. I wouldn't ask you to do this if I wasn't confident you could do it. As I said a minute ago, you are all incredibly gifted people. But with those gifts that you have come responsibilities because it says in the Bible, to whom much has been given, much is expected.
So to change the world, you're going to need to do at least three things, and I want to talk to you about those today. Number one, you're going to have to have hope. Number two, you're going to have to be able to imagine things that you can't yet see. A number three, you're going to need to get close to and spend time with-- or as my friend, Bryan Steven says, get proximate to-- those who have been marginalized in our society by inequality.
For those of you who work in the clinic space, you may have never noticed, but there's a plaque on the wall as you enter it. The designation is the Craig Yankwitt Reading Room. Craig was a student in the Capital Punishment Clinic, and he worked with Sheri Johnson and I for several semesters on Sterling Spann's case. Sterling is a former death row inmate, now released and doing well after we were able to uncover evidence of his innocence.
Craig and his then girlfriend-- and then later, wife-- Angel were part of that effort. Craig tragically died of brain cancer several years ago, while he was still in his 30s. After he found out that he had brain cancer, he and Angel decided to have a child, even though they knew the odds were high that Craig would not live to see their child grow up. And they had a beautiful young boy named Jude. And together, we had dinner here when he came back for a reunion, not long before he died.
That is hope. That is the kind of hope the world needs more of. That is imagining a future that you can't see. And Craig's father, George, and his two brothers, Ian and Russell, created a fellowship for young attorneys to work with the Capital Punishment Clinic and Justice 360, a non-profit in Columbia, South Carolina. The fellowship's purpose is to give recent Law School graduates the opportunity to spend two years in the Deep South, fighting for justice for people on death row and juveniles sentenced to life without parole. That, too, is a gift born out of hope and being able to imagine justice that you can't yet see. And Alison Franz, who sits in the audience and graduates with you today-- Ali, would you please stand up?
And Ali is the beneficiary of the Yankwitt family's generosity, she will be moving to South Carolina as the next Yankwitt fellow.
Now, you're going to need hope, because there are going to come moments which will challenge you as a lawyer and as a person to such a degree that you will wonder whether you can or should go on, and I'll tell you briefly about mine.
In a six-week period, from December of 1998 through January of 1999, the state of South Carolina executed six men. Five were African-American, the sixth was Native American. Five of the six were represented either by myself, or Professor Johnson, or both of us. Professor [INAUDIBLE] was involved in similar cases, as was professor Garvey. I had represented four of those clients for a collective total of 40 years.
All of the cases went down to the bitter end in the state and federal courts and other last minute attempts to cheat the executioner. But all six were executed, more or less on time. Two of them, brothers, were executed the same night. I personally watched two of them die. And for better or worse, mine was the last friendly face they saw in the world.
For me, personally, I came out of that six weeks angry and bitter, riddled with self-doubt. And all of us who worked on the cases wonder whether we had done all we could for those six men, whether we had made the right judgment calls, whether we had fought hard enough. We psychoanalyzed and cursed the courts and wondered whether we were like Sisyphus, trying to roll the boulder up the hill. It was, to borrow a phrase from Dickens, the worst of times.
But then out of the dreams of our despair, unusual things started to happen. We heard that the state Supreme Court was troubled by the wave of execution, by the evidence of race discrimination in several of the cases, strong evidence of possible innocence in another, and the execution of a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran. Then they started to act, and they began recognizing, in a series of cases vacating death sentences, that you get the death penalty in this country not for committing the worst crime, but for having the worst lawyer.
The Supreme Court of the United States created categorical exemptions from the death penalty for persons with intellectual disability and for juveniles. Even the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, one of the most conservative circuits in the country, set aside the convictions of death sentences of two of our clients, Eddie Elmore and Johnny Bennett, because the evidence that racial discrimination infected their cases was too much even for them to bear.
And through the work of Cornell alumna Emily [INAUDIBLE], Lindsey [INAUDIBLE], Cathy Lamonte, Zoey Jones, [INAUDIBLE], and Hannah Friedman, all of whom have spent time there fighting the good fight, the size of South Carolina's death row has been reduced from 72 to 39. And there's not been an execution in over a decade.
Yes, there have been and will be more challenging moments to come. Last Friday, for example, the Governor of South Carolina signed a bill bringing back the electric chair and the firing squad, and we soldier on. But in many ways, the two decades following the killing season of 1988 1999 have been, in many respects, the best of times to represent persons on death row.
Now, your challenging moment will not be like mine, but it will come. It may come if you are plaintiff's lawyer and you put your heart and soul into a case, and you are convinced the evidence is overwhelming, and the jury finds for the defendant. It may come when a deal in which you have invested hundreds of hours falls through, and someone says, it's your fault. It may come if you're a prosecutor or a public defender and you lose a trial you are absolutely convinced you should have won. It may come in various different ways, but it will come. It is the nature of the legal beast. And when it does, you have to remember to have hope. There are better days ahead, and sometimes you have to dig deep, pull yourself up, shake off your self-doubt, and press on.
You have to imagine justice that you can't yet see. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr used to say, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it inevitably bends towards justice. I choose to believe that. I choose to believe that often in the face of evidence to the contrary, when I imagine justice that I can't see-- justice that, for now, I can only dream about.
I choose to believe that when I dream about a day when the United States will not be the only Western democracy in the world that executes its citizens. I choose to believe that when I dream about a world where the kind of justice a person receives is not dependent on their ability to pay for it. I choose to believe that when I dream about living in a country that does not sentence juveniles to life without parole. And I choose to believe that when I dream about a day when I won't turn on the TV and see a police officer kneeling on a black man's neck for nine minutes.
Your dreams are not my dreams. My dreams are those of an old man, who grew up in the segregated South, and who spent the last 37 years toiling in its criminal justice system. Yours are those of a new generation, heading off to practice in a post-pandemic world, facing new challenges, such as climate change and more and better ones such as structural inequality. And even though our dreams are different, I hope you also choose to believe that the arc of the universe bends towards justice and that it is your job, as a lawyer, to help it bend a little quicker than it otherwise would bend if you had not chosen to go to law school and entered the legal profession.
As some of you know, before I went to law school, I went to Divinity School. And my favorite theologian, then and now, was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was executed shortly before the end of World War 2 for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, something which he reluctantly concluded had to be done. In one of his writings during his imprisonment, prior to his execution, Bonhoeffer observed, quote, that "there is an experience of incomparable value to see things from below, from the perspective of those who suffer, to look with new eyes on matters great and small."
So drawing on Bonhoeffer's practical theology, let me also encourage you, no matter what type of law you're going to practice, to get proximate to the places in your community where there is suffering, poverty, and embedded inequality. Get to know the people who live there, to spend time with them, in order to be able to understand the very real obstacles they face every day and to do what you can to help alleviate that suffering, poverty, and inequality. That is when you will start to change the world. You can change the world one life and one community at a time.
And you need to do that because to whom much has been given, much is expected. And as new lawyers have now become trustees of justice, and it is a sacred trust. So dream, and dream of justice. But remember, as Langston Hughes said in his great poem, the "Dream of Freedom," to save the dream for one, it must be saved for all.
Finally, on the theme of hope, let me send you off by saying that there are two things I hope for each and every one of you. First, I hope that you will be as satisfied in your choice of a career as I've been. You don't get to be my age without having many regrets in life, but I had never once regretted my decision to go to law school. It has been an honor and a privilege to teach at this great University. It has also been an honor and a privilege to get proximate to those in our society who they've turned their backs on, the condemned men and women of death row and juveniles condemned to die, serving sentences of life without parole.
Doing so has taught me, among other things, a very simple lesson that I try and always keep in mind. Every person on this Earth is much more than the worst thing they have ever done. A day does not go by when one of my clients does not teach me a lesson about dignity, hope, and perseverance. You may not find this satisfaction in your first job, whatever it is. I hope you do, but you may not. If you don't, then my advice would be to find a career in the law that will satisfy and reward you, the right job that fulfills you as a lawyer and a person.
Second, I hope that each and every one of you will find someone-- a spouse, a significant other, a partner-- who will be as supportive of you in your career as my wife [INAUDIBLE] has been to me. Her support and love has gotten me through the moments when I needed more hope, and I'm eternally grateful to her for that. So thank you, again, Class of 2021. Godspeed, good luck, and remember that although you leave us today, you will always be part of the Cornell Law School family.
We will miss all of you, and I will especially miss this graduating group of clinic students. And if there is anything we can do to help you, please call on us, and please come back to see us. Now go and take your place in the world. And remember that to whom much has been given, much is expected. And right here, on this 22nd day of May, in this stadium, you all promised to change the world. And I know you will.
JENS DAVID OHLIN: Thank you, John. It is now my pleasure to introduce Leslie Wheelock, a 1984 graduate of both Cornell Law School and Cornell Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. Leslie is the president of the Cornell Law School Alumni Association Executive Board of Directors. Please turn your attention to the monitors for a video greeting from Leslie on behalf of our alumni.
- [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] Hello, I'm Leslie Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and a JD MBA graduate from the Cornell Law School class of 1984. And I'm the president of the Cornell Law School Alumni Board of Directors. I know that 2020 and 2021 have been challenging for you, for your families, your friends, and your professors. And I have chatted with some of your classmates, who have met those challenges with thoughtfulness, humility, concern, empathy, and resilience.
I hope that additional concerns for unrepresented and underrepresented US citizens and others that rose up during the same time have helped to create a drive in each of you to understand our related histories better and work toward common goals to improve our society. I had other thoughts for this moment, but I am recording this on May 14, in 2021, and the CDC has just freed us up from most of the restrictions in place to keep ourselves and others safe during the COVID crisis.
I imagine many of you still may be working remotely when you move into your next journey, wherever that may be. But I see you-- I see all of us-- in live meetings with classmates and friends, with judges, and clients, and colleagues in a way that has been restricted for over a year. My hope for you is that the returned freedoms, freedoms we took for granted, will create a reflection point for your work as you move forward. I personally want to thank you for helping change the way our Law School alumni work with and support students at the Law School.
And they have been subtle or invisible to you, but the Cornell alums who have always been supportive of our students and graduates have begun new initiatives to support students through Zoom technology, using a tool that's no longer needed to all of us. As part of that effort I recommend you all join CUeLINKS at cuelinks.cornell.edu, which we are working to improve as a tool for Cornell Law School students and alumni to get in touch and stay in touch. Finally, and most importantly, I commend and congratulate you as you become graduates of the Cornell Law School Class of 2021 and enter the world as lawyers in the best sense.
JENS DAVID OHLIN: As impressive as all of our speakers have been this afternoon, we now come to what I suspect will be the highlight for most of you in this stadium, the formal recognition of our graduates. At this time, I would like to turn these proceedings over to our Dean of Students, Markeisha Miner.
MARKEISHA MINER: Thank you, Dean Ohlin. Graduates are acknowledged in alphabetical order by a degree category. We begin this afternoon with the candidate for the Degree of Master of Laws.
The following are the candidates for the Degree of Master of Laws in Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship.
The following are the candidates for the Degree of Juris Doctor and Master of Laws in International and Comparative Law.
The following are the candidates for the Degree of Juris Doctor.
Parents, families, friends, please join me, Dean Ohlin, our faculty, and administrators in congratulating the Cornell Law School Class of 2021.
JENS DAVID OHLIN: Congratulations to all of you. Before we conclude these proceedings, let us have one more round of applause, this time for the family and friends present here today. I know I speak for all of you graduates when I say, here in Schoellkopf Field and at home, around the country, and the world, joining us today are family members and friends, who offered you incredible support and encouragement throughout your time as law students, especially the last year and a half, more than we could possibly quantify. As we celebrate the enormous accomplishments of our graduates, we celebrate as well all who helped to make such accomplishments possible. So a well-earned round of applause
I would also like to thank the Law School and University staff, who worked tirelessly and with very short notice to make today's celebration possible.
Please stand for a special rendition of the Alma Mater. The words appear on the last page of your program. Once we conclude the Alma Mater, please remain standing while the faculty recess off the field. Graduates will then recess to be greeted by guests outside of the stadium.
(SINGING) Far above Cayuga's waters with its waves of blue stands our noble alma mater, glorious to view. Lift the chorus, speed it onward, loud her praises tell, hail to thee, our alma mater, hail, all hail Cornell. Far above the busy humming of the bustling town, reared against the arch of heaven looks she proudly down. Lift the chorus, speed it onward, loud her praises tell, hail to thee, our alma mater, hail, all hail Cornell.
SPEAKER 1: Ladies and gentlemen, this marks the conclusion of the 134th Cornell Law School Convocation at Cornell University. Thank you for celebrating the Class of 2021 with us.
[BAND MUSIC PLAYING]
(SINGING -- CORNELL-THEMED LYRICS TO "GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROADWAY")
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Cornell Law School honors the Class of 2021 at its convocation ceremony on May 22.