Justice Kennedy to Class of '09: Spread freedom and the rule of law
Telling them that more than half the world's population lives "outside the law," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy told Stanford graduates to spread American principles of justice, especially in places that resist them.
"With our own freedom comes the duty to share it with others," Kennedy said Sunday during the university's 118th Commencement in Stanford Stadium. "Freedom is the birthright for all humankind."
Kennedy, who earned a bachelor's degree from Stanford in 1958 and has become a swing vote since being appointed as an associate justice 30 years later by President Reagan, made no mention of current cases pending before the nation's highest court or President Obama's choice of Sonia Sotomayor to replace his colleague, Justice David Souter.
Instead, he focused his remarks on the hard work of building fair and honest legal systems in countries that don't want or understand them.
"More than half of the people in this world live outside the law," he said.
He offered some sobering examples: countries where rape victims must pay a fee to file a complaint with police and people are imprisoned for a year because they cannot afford to pay fines as low as $1. And he pointed to human trafficking as an evil that claims 800,000 victims each year.
"All this is because of an absence of freedom and the rule of law," he said.
Kennedy, who teaches law students during summer sessions in Salzburg, Austria, takes part in international judges' conferences and has been helping China develop its judiciary, has seen the promise of how the rule of law can take hold in other parts of the globe.
When China opened its first law school based on the American law school model last year, officials were faced with having to whittle down a list of thousands of applicants to a class of 100 students.
After a few rounds of trimming, the admissions committee posed a simple question to the would-be lawyers: what inspired you to go to law school?
He wasn't particularly surprised when many of them said their motivation came from a Hollywood movie. After all, Chinese students often learn English by watching American films, plenty of which have glorified the legal profession—To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution.
He was shocked when most of the applicants cited Legally Blonde. But after watching the light-hearted movie—about a young woman entering the unfamiliar, unfriendly and threatening world of a law school—he understood why the Chinese students related to it.
"What they were doing was taking a risk," he said, and encouraged the graduating class to take risks of their own especially when their ideas are met with hostile challenges.
The weight of Kennedy's message was lightened by the mood of the day.
As always, the graduates kicked off Commencement with the Wacky Walk. As they entered the stadium, they showed off signs of thanks and inside jokes to a crowd of roughly 25,000 relatives, friends and well-wishers.
One group of graduates skipped around the field dressed in Peter Pan costumes, members of the swim team wore only bathing suits and water wings with their gowns, and at least one member of the class of 2009 showed up wearing a cat suit.
"It always felt like a long four years, but today it seems like it went by in a blink of an eye," said Ben Trammell, an English literature major planning to become a teacher. "I'm ready to get to what's next."
The graduates also gave plenty of nods to the news of the day. The economic recession inspired some to hold signs reading "still need a job" or festoon their mortar boards with messages advertising their eligibility to work in fast food restaurants. The worldwide spread of swine flu prompted several to parade the stadium field with pig noses.
And for just about everyone in the stadium, the day was a reminder of one of life's major transitions.
"Our son is leaving behind amazing friends and mentors, but there's no sense of distance that will keep him apart from this place," said Darlene Nevin, whose son Zachary Nevin graduated Sunday as a molecular and cellular biology major. "He'll have those memories and connections for the rest of his life."
The ceremony marked the award of 1,735 bachelor's degrees, 2,039 master's degrees and 925 doctoral degrees.
Departmental honors were awarded to 326 seniors, and 274 graduated with university distinction. Another 93 graduated with multiple majors and 34 received dual bachelor's degrees. There were 142 graduates receiving both bachelor's and master's degrees.
Among international students, there were 94 undergraduates from 39 countries other than the United States, and 934 graduate students from 77 foreign countries.
"At Stanford, we believe that the rights and privileges of an education also bring a responsibility to make good use of your knowledge, to be good citizens and to help ensure that future generations have the same opportunities as you," said President John Hennessy. "Today, you join a long line of distinguished alumni, who, like Justice Anthony Kennedy, have made good use of their education."