Commencement 2017: Keynote Address of Justice Debra H. Lehrmann ’82


Texas Law’s annual graduation festivities, known as the Sunflower Ceremony, were held this past Saturday. The Law School graduated 312 J.D.s and 43 LL.M.s. The Hon. Debra H. Lehrmann, Justice of the Texas Supreme Court and a proud member of the Class of 1982 gave the keynote address. Below is a copy of of her prepared for publication:

Dean Farnsworth, distinguished faculty, family, friends and—most importantly—law school graduates of the class of 2017, it is indeed my great privilege to be here today, to join in this time-honored tradition of greeting the next generation of great and noble lawyers.

The degree to which I am honored to be here is truly enormous.  Not only because my husband and I are graduates of this esteemed law school, and because of the high regard we have for the legal profession, but also because our son, Jonathan, is (as many of you know) a member of this graduating class.  In fact, both of our sons, Gregory and Jonathan, are here today, and both of them will soon be lawyers.

And so, as I speak to you today, I speak not only as a hopeful member of the legal profession, but also as a mother speaking to her sons.  Like all of you, I am humbled beyond words with pride, gratitude, and sincere joy.

And so—graduates—congratulations!  You have accomplished SO very much.  And yet … the best is just around the corner!

*  *  *  *

Today you are entering a noble profession—one of enormous proportions.

So, what are the lofty ideals that make the legal profession so impactful? Alexander Hamilton opined that the third branch of government is the least dangerous branch—and I would add that in many ways, it is the most important branch—because it is our branch that protects and nurtures the rule of law—the rule of all rules that has ushered in prosperity, order, and tranquility for us all.  The rule that ensures the small business owner down the street can trust that her contracts will be enforced so she can earn a living and feed her family.

The role the legal profession plays in this grand experiment called democracy can never be overstated. It is our profession that ensures that the will of the people is enforced, but never at the expense of any individual’s fundamental rights.  Indeed, we are the gatekeepers.  For …

If we don’t fight to ensure the rule of law is applied equally and fairly, who will?

If we don’t stand up for the “poor … [and] huddled masses” to ensure that justice is available for everyone, not just the economically privileged, who will?

If we don’t protect the disenfranchised and scorned, who will?

If we don’t work to ensure that both our criminal justice system and our civil justice system are applied fairly and equally, without regard to race, religion, national origin, or minority status, who will?

If we don’t safeguard individual rights enshrined in our Bill of Rights, who will?

*    *    *

Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech, freedom of religious expression, freedom to contract, individual rights, collective rights—these are the things we stand for. And these are things we, as lawyers, fight to protect.

Remember William Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry VI, “Let’s kill all the lawyers”?  Of course, Dick the Butcher was actually pontificating that the road to anarchy begins with “killing all the lawyers.” But that line is one of the most misunderstood statements in the history of literature!

Indeed, as agents of the law, our profession is charged to enforce the rule of law so that ordinary Americans can live hopeful lives in search of bright futures. To ensure that the right to life, liberty, and property continues to displace reliance on class, heredity, wealth, and military might—that is our charge.

So as you enter this noble profession today, I want to share a few tidbits that I hope will help you as you start down your path:

  1. Watch for the possibilities.  Because they will sneak up on you!

Who knows what the future holds for each of you.  I can tell you that when I was in your shoes, I never imagined that I would one day sit on our state’s highest court.  Every one of you has the potential to do great and momentous things, whether in a board room, a court room, a conference room, a negotiating room, a legal clinic, or a state house; whether doing public service work or private sector work, or wearing a black robe.  The opportunities are endless.

And you never know when that noteworthy moment is going to present itself.  So, always be on the lookout!  Several years ago, I wrote an opinion involving the issue of whether a court could restrain future speech, an issue clearly involving bedrock constitutional principles.  In a footnote, almost as an afterthought, I cited the Big Lebowski. Now, have you all ever seen The Big Lebowski? It is a somewhat crass cult film in which John Goodman plays a really obnoxious character who uses a lot of really bad language! In one scene, he is screaming profanity in a family café, and the wait person tells him to quit yelling.  To which John’s character replies, “For your information, the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint.”  My point: prior restraints are so significant in terms of the impact they potentially have on freedom of speech that the doctrine is even recognized in popular culture.

Well, that single footnote got thousands of hits in countries all over the world.  It was even recognized as the footnote of the year!  Now, I can’t say that I ever envisioned—in a million years—that the name Debra Lehrmann would be associated with The Big Lebowski!  But, that simple, LITTLE footnote reached people from all over the world, teaching folks from all walks of life about a bedrock constitutional principle regarding freedom of speech!

So, it is about the LITTLE things.  I think we have a vague sense that only the big things really count.  But it’s not just the BIG things.  We won’t all be awarded Noble Peace Prizes, but …

You now have the tools to prevent a family from losing its home; to protect a child from abuse; to help a veteran recover benefits; to help an individual negotiate and enforce a contract; to assist an elderly citizen in protecting her earnings; to provide pro bono services for the indigent; to help a young couple buy their first home.  The opportunities are endless!

Remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s powerful words: “To know even ONE life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

  1. Always be mindful of how much others will depend upon you.

I am sure that you have a sense of the significance of this profession you are now entering.  What you may not be quite as aware of is the degree to which others will depend upon you.  No matter where you are in your class, after today and once you get that law license, you will have a power and capacity that very few people have. You will have the power to help those in need, to improve lives, to foster stability, to counsel on the law. Indeed, you will be listened to, sought after, respected and depended upon.

As you proceed down this path, speak up to injustice.  Listen and engage.  Learn from the other side.  Don’t be stubborn.  Undoubtedly, you will confront ignorance, hatred, and bigotry. That is the sad truth. Do so with vigilance, humility, mercy and compassion. And always be aware of your influence, of the impact you have on others.

  1. Know that with this influence (and privilege) comes great responsibility. 

You all have a special responsibility, not only to those you represent, but also to our profession and to this great experiment in democracy.  You are charged, in the words of the great Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, “To live greatly in the law.”

When Alexander Hamilton said that the Judiciary is the least dangerous branch of government, he was referring to the reality that, unlike other branches of government, our branch lacks the power of the Executive Branch and the political passions of the Legislative Branch. We have no army to enforce our rulings and no bully pulpit to enrage our citizens.  Our primary policing mechanism is ourselves.

And so, whether we are prosecuting or defending an individual charged with transgressions against society, representing a party in a civil dispute, drafting a contract, deed, or will, or giving any legal advice, we must do so ethically, honestly, and earnestly. With civility.  With integritydoing the right thing when nobody is looking.

When I was a trial judge, lawyers routinely presented facts and law to the court that went against their clients’ positions.  They did their best to distinguish the case or the facts, but they did not hide the truth.  I see the same thing on the Supreme Court. The rare situations in which a lawyer is less than forthright are noticeable.  And people remember.  Always know, it takes a lifetime to build a reputation, it takes only a moment—sometimes a single act—to destroy it.

I’m often asked what my favorite lawyer joke is, and my answer is always the same: I have NO favorite lawyer jokes!!  I don’t like lawyer jokes because I see proven on a daily basis that lawyers are noble professionals who understand and live up to their enormous responsibilities, and who do so with honesty, civility, and humility.

  1. Be resilient. You are all clearly very hardworking, conscientious individuals or you would not be here today.  And you must continue to dig deep, to be the most prepared person in the room. Others will notice.  I promise!

But it is also very important for high-achieving people like you to be aware that there will be ups and downs. You won’t win every case, or get every contract, or emerge the victor in every election.  The important thing is how you play the game, and how you react in the face of loss.  Learn to bounce back, to be resilient.  If things are not working for you, change your course to create your own reality.  Remember, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!

Doctors have given a new name to deaths that occur after surgeries that go wrong—“failure to rescue.” I believe that this is what distinguishes the average from the spectacular.  These doctors don’t fail less, they rescue more.  It is what happens after the disappointment (the challenge, the unexpected) that is defining.

  1. Be a purposeful doer.  MADD leader Judith Light turned the tragedy of losing her precious child into a passion that has saved millions of lives.

Two things I really love are: (a) children (not only my own, although Gregory and Jonathan are at the top of my list!) and (b) writing. I never thought that I would be able to combine these two things to serve on our state’s supreme court.  But, here I am!

You may not know exactly what your passions are.  You may have no idea.  The truth is it doesn’t matter.  You don’t have to know.  I certainly didn’t when I was your age.  But, you must keep moving forward, stay involved, seize the next opportunity, keep your eyes wide open, and act with purpose. And things will happen for you!

  1. And throughout it all, realize that you are part of a greater whole. We must act with integrity individually, because we, as lawyers, are part of a bigger picture.

Oliver Wendell Holmes believed in our recognition of the law and society as something far greater than any one of us individually.  Remember his inspiring words:

“Life is a roar of bargain and battle.”

“But in the very heart of it there rises a mystic spiritual tone that gives meaning to the whole.”

“It reminds us that our only but wholly adequate significance is as parts of the unimaginable whole.”

Justice Holmes noted that the development of the law is like that “of a plant, with each generation taking the inevitable next step; mind, like matter, simply obeying a law of spontaneous growth.”

YOU are the newest leaves on the vast tree of the legal profession: a tree with roots as long and as established as the common law itself.  What YOU do reflects on our entire profession, and in turn, will affect our future.

We are a service profession charged with helping others.  Indeed, you will have the opportunity to create new programs and to promote policy for the betterment of all. Just as others before you have.  Like:

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht’s efforts on our Access to Justice Initiative.  It has grown and flourished under his leadership, to ensure that justice is available to all, not only to the wealthy; or

Former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson’s tireless work to reform our truancy policies, which now serve as a models for other states—to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system so that they can have a bright tomorrow; or

Our profession’s focus on alternative forms of dispute resolution.  Because of this dedication, programs have been developed that reduce the conflict and cost associated with litigation; or

The State Bar’s Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans program, which provides legal services for our brave men and women who risk their lives for all of us and come home in need;

And these are just a few.

Again, you never know when the opportunities will arise. Little did I know as a young lawyer attending local Bar meetings and happy hours—to meet friends and have fun—that this involvement would translate to an ability to work on committees locally, statewide, and nationally that would develop policy affecting children and families (in a positive way) across the globe.  Get involved in your local and state bar associations.  Because this will help YOU do what you want to do to improve the world.

I can’t wait to learn about the things YOU do to nourish the tree of law, to water those branches of justice in ways that extend far beyond our imaginations.

*  *  *  *

In preparing for this day, I did a lot of reflecting and was reminded of my own graduation from UT Law, over thirty years ago, which seems like only yesterday. I remember that:

The dean of UT was former FBI agent, John Sutton;

My Con Law professor was the constitutional law legend, Charles Allen Wright;

Like many of you, I had the privilege of learning about Wills and Estates from the renowned Professor Stanley Johanson!

Outside of the law school:

Michael Jackson had grown from a talented young child (in the Jackson Five) to a musical legend; he had just released his huge hit “Thriller”;

“Chariots of Fire” took home the Academy Award for best picture;

An actor, Ronald Reagan, was elected President of the United States;

For the first time in history, a woman (Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) was appointed to the US Supreme Court.

One day, you too will remember the historic moments of this time. You will no doubt remember:

Wise Dean Farnsworth, your talented friends, your brilliant law professors, that UT President Bill Powers came back to the law school to grace us with his genius, (of course) the legendary Professor Johansen, and that this great institution jumped into the ranks of the T-14!

You will also remember that our first African-American President just completed his second term in office, and

That THREE women sat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

You may also remember:

Adele breaking her Grammy in half—to give a part to Beyonce—at the ceremony; and

The best picture mix-up at the Oscars—was it La La Land or Moonlight?

Most importantly, you will remember that this is YOUR moment in time—the day you receive your doctorate in the law!

*  *  *  *

So, go forward and live your lives with integrity.  Know that YOU are the voice and instrument for the rule of law.

Watch for the possibilities; remember that the little, everyday things really count.

Be mindful of the degree to which others depend upon you.  Understand your responsibilities, earn your respect, and appreciate your privilege.  Be thoughtful and introspective about what you do and how you do it. Always be honest and truthful.

When thing don’t go well, pick yourself up, change course if necessary, and keep on going.

Be a purposeful doer.

Be aware of your role in the greater picture: be cognizant that your choices and conduct will ripple beyond your own life and will, in fact, affect our entire world.

*  *  *  *

And as you make your way down this noble path, serve justice, act mercifully, walk humbly, and prove that those lawyer jokes are NOT funny!

Because if we don’t, who will?

Congratulations, God bless, and good luck to each of you on your path to greatness!


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