Addressing Law School graduates, Babcock urges them to shape their profession
BY JUDITH ROMERO
"How did I become the public defender in the nation's capital at the age of 30? The fact is, no one else could afford to do it. ... [The salary] was set at $16,000 a year, and the other applicants were all family men whose wives were homemakers," said Professor Barbara Allen Babcock, the first director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and the first female professor at Stanford Law School, in her address Sunday to the Class of 2004 during the school's graduation ceremony in Memorial Auditorium.
"So I hired the best male contender as my deputy ..., paid him almost three times what I made and delegated the hard, boring tasks while I defended precious freedom in the courts before juries," she said with trademark charisma, inviting the crowd to laugh.
Babcock, the Judge John Crown Professor of Law, was voted by the graduating class to win the John Bingham Hurlbut Award for Excellence in Teaching once again, making her the first four-time winner. She is also retiring this year to become the first professor emerita of the Law School.
The feminist movement enabled her to accomplish a lifetime of firsts in the field of law, she told the overflowing audience of about 1,800 family and friends as she encouraged the law graduates to choose a mission, join a movement and stand proudly on the shoulders of those who came before them.
"In 1972, I had the sense to see a window opening and I knew it would not be open for long -- so I leaped through it and came to this wonderful job at Stanford. ... It was not the murder cases I defended but the movement I joined that brought me here," she said.
Its own path-breaking accomplishments set the Class of 2004 apart from any other, Babcock noted. Fifty-three percent of the graduates are women -- the highest percentage in the history of the Law School, and remarkable compared to the 4 percent enrolled in law schools at the time Babcock graduated.
And because the 2004 graduates started Law School just days before Sept. 11, they formed an unshakable bond -- a sense of community that has been manifested by a 98 percent participation rate in the 2004 Class Gift, shattering all past records at the Law School and the university, Babcock said.
"You as a class have been unusually tolerant and understanding, interested in and supportive of each other," she said.
"That you came together as a class in a momentous time -- September 2001 -- reminds me of Salman Rushdie's novel about the children born at midnight ... in 1947 when India declared its independence from Great Britain," she said. "Midnight's children ... share a special vision, an inward experience that sets them apart for life.
"Soon each of you will be taking your oath as attorneys -- with its central promise ... that you will support and defend the Constitution," she told the graduates. "Not since the beginning of American history has our beloved country needed lawyers so much as now.
"We need people who enjoy due process; people who can see both sides of the argument, who live by negotiation and settlement, people who are suspicious of grand claims and skeptical of ultimate solutions, who insist on giving notice and assuring the opportunity to be heard, and who revere tradition and precedent," Babcock said.
"We need people trained to seek justice while recognizing that it is a standard and not a rule. Most of all, we need men and women who have studied the Constitution and its texts, who understand its purposes to preserve individual freedom and equality," she said.
Babcock then challenged the graduates to go out and shape their new profession, saying, "Now that women are a critical mass within it, the legal profession could be made to respond to our presence in ways that could enlarge and elevate the practice while improving the lives of all lawyers.
"We could turn now to changing the profession itself so that it accommodates the lives of women, so that pro bono publico and public service are central values, so that it is no longer a market-worshiping, bottom-line business," Babcock said.
"Feminist men and women working together to that end -- it's the next movement. Join up now," she urged.
The graduation ceremony took place a month before the university's general commencement because the school follows a semester system and law classes end in May. Among those who participated in the ceremony were 176 candidates for the degree of Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD); 20 for the degree of Master of Laws (LLM), with 10 focusing on corporate law and business, and 10 focusing on law, science and technology; 14 for the degree of Master of the Science of Law (JSM); and seven for the degree of Doctor of the Science of Law (JSD). The graduates will receive their degrees this summer, pending the issuance of final grades.
This year's ceremony was also marked by another transition: Kathleen M. Sullivan, Dean and Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Stanley Morrison Professor of Law, is concluding her tenure as dean in September, and will return after a year's sabbatical to launch a new constitutional law center. Sullivan's successor was recently announced: Professor Larry D. Kramer, a constitutional scholar from New York University.
In her final commencement charge as dean, Sullivan told the class, "You're young and you live in a world where ubiquitous wireless connectivity creates a sense of short time frames, constant motion and instant gratification. But all great legal careers require a sense of patience.
"Tomorrow, May 17," she noted, "we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision ending the legal regime of enforced public educational segregation in its decision in Brown v. Board.
"It took the legendary Thurgood Marshall and the other great NAACP lawyers ... a great sense of patience to win that case. Not just because that case had to be argued before the Supreme Court twice, once in 1952 and once in 1953. ... No, the patience to win Brown began long before that," Sullivan said.
Sullivan went on to explain how NAACP lawyers first waged a legal battle in the 1920s to demonstrate, case by case, that black and white schools were in fact materially unequal, in order to force equal spending on black schools, as required by the infamous 1896 separate but equal decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. The NAACP reasoned that such spending would make segregated schools prohibitively expensive and compel them to integrate.
Sullivan then pointed out that the contemporary civil rights struggle for lesbians and gays requires similar patience. It took 17 years for Bowers v. Hardwick to be overturned by the Supreme Court, she noted. Sullivan had written the brief on behalf of Michael Hardwick in that case, but the Supreme Court held that the argument for the right of privacy was "at best, facetious."
Finally, last summer, Sullivan saw a long-awaited legal victory in the Bowers case when Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, that "Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It should be and now is overruled."
Continuing in her charge, Sullivan noted that "few of us can be such heroes" as the African American children who went to school in 1954 protected by the National Guard as "foot soldiers for the fidelity to Brown."
But, Sullivan said, "You will have the chance to show courage, too, in your careers. You will be faced with what you know are systemic wrongs. There will always be incentives to look away. But just think what a difference you might make, ... what a big change you might make by taking such a small hit to do the right thing. And do it. Be courageous. Do the right thing."
The 2004 Staff Appreciation Award was presented by the graduating class to the janitorial staff of the Law School, and accepted on their behalf by Evelia Ramirez, who said the staff will "hold this award close to our hearts."
Judith Romero is assistant director of communications at the Law School.