Text of Justice Kennedy's 2009 Commencement Address

Following is the text of the address by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, as prepared for delivery at Stanford University's 118th Commencement on June 14, 2009

L.A. Cicero Anthony M. Kennedy

Anthony M. Kennedy

President Hennessey, graduating students, and my fellow citizens in a world that must seek to come ever closer to the idea and reality of freedom under law. Thank you for inviting me to your Commencement. There is now clear evidence that, with President Hennessey, I have become a willing accomplice in the wacky walk.

Each of you graduates has your own story of the years at Stanford. Your story is bound up with your parents, your family and the loved ones who sustained you here. You—indeed all of us and the entire Nation—owe them warmest thanks.

Freedom must remain a central part of your story. From the beginning of our Republic, Americans have defined freedom by a moral principle. It is this: With our own freedom comes the duty to secure it for others. Freedom is the birthright of all. When we help others find freedom, we save our own.

Now, two people or two million people or two billion people cannot enjoy freedom without rules. So freedom goes hand in hand with law. This is just high school civics stuff. No surprise here. But the principles are so fundamental that it seems appropriate to discuss them at your commencement, as you consider how best to shape your life and your work.

Americans have the responsibility to try to advance law and freedom in other places. The task is daunting. For the stark truth is this: more than half the world lacks either the will or the power to embrace law and freedom as we know it. In struggling nations the jury on whether to pursue law and freedom is a jury that is still out. In the long run our last, best security is in the realm of ideas. It is urgent for our Nation and for you as young people to strive to make the case for the idea of law and freedom. We must make that case to a doubting world. On this question, the world must not be in search of two different destinies.

When lawyers make their case to a jury, they sometimes have a few hours. Attorneys in our Court have thirty minutes a side. Today, in order not to trespass upon your patience or delay your celebration, I shall take but eleven minutes more to make the case about your duties as the newest trustees of freedom.

We must be willing to persuade others to make law and freedom central in their own lives and their own Nation. For the past twenty years or so I have tried to visit China often to teach. Of course, on any given day, as in any classroom in any place, some students may fold their arms over their chests, the universal sign of resistance to the message or the messenger.

Still, there is an audience of eager students. They appear at least willing to consider finding common ground to pursue a common cause. This last fall China opened its first law school on the American model, a three year graduate program. The problem was how to select the entering class of about one hundred students from thousands of applicants. For those one hundred or so places there were thousands of highly qualified applicants, scientists and engineers, artists and humanities majors. The list was trimmed again, and then the committee decided to have interviews. One of the questions was: what inspired you to go to law school? Any number of students answered that it was a movie. Chinese students like to build their language skills by watching movies from England and the United States. So I thought, well, the movie that inspired them was 12 Angry Men, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Witness for the Prosecution. Wrong answer. The movie was: Legally Blonde.

After watching the movie and then talking to the students at the new school, we found an explanation. The movie, after graduating from a college in California, depicts a young woman who decides to go to a famed, rigorous law school in the East. She is, or so it seems at first, the very caricature of some one so frivolous and naïve that the audience cannot take her seriously. So when she goes to the law school she takes a serious risk. She must enter a new, unfamiliar, unfriendly, threatening, small universe, one formerly closed to her. These Chinese students were taking a risk like that.

You must prepare to take some risks to make the case. You may enter a realm of ideas or a real world place where freedom is not just in doubt but opposed. You must find inventive, new ways to make the case for freedom. And to be prepared for this role, to be prepared to confront the reality of half a world without law and freedom, you must know what is at stake.

You must know that in Sri Lanka over a thousand people a year go to jail for three hundred sixty-five days for want of a one dollar fine.

You must know that there is an African country where a woman who is raped must pay five dollars to file a complaint with the police.

You must know that each year eight hundred thousand people – mostly women and children – are the subject of capture and trafficking for slavery and sexual exploitation. Human trafficking is one of the world’s most profitable businesses.

All of these failings come from the absence of the rule of law. You would think this would be clear to everyone. It is surprising, though, that the concept escapes so many.

In 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave a commencement speech. It was puzzling at first that, in a speech moving in so many other ways, he attacked the West for being too devoted to the law. After a few days I reached this conclusion: his understanding of law was simply different from our own. For him the concept, the history, the meaning of law made it a diktat, a ukase, a cold threat, a decree. We believe otherwise. For us the law is not an obstacle but the instrument of progress; not a command to be feared but a hope to be embraced; not a threat but a promise.

Let me give you another example of how absence of law takes away the chance for freedom. A recent U.N. Commission studied a populous, struggling country, and asked this question: “Suppose you want to open a bakery. How hard is it to get a business license?” The answer was: It takes over five hundred working days; over twenty agencies; and the cost is in excess of three and a half months wages for a skilled worker. So there is the other choice: pay a bribe and support a corrupt government where bribery itself is justified as the way to subsist.

The chance to build and own a small business is an essential part of any economy that seeks to establish law and freedom. That is why we want many of you to have economic success. A certain economic self sufficiency is necessary if we are to have some voice in planning our own destiny. This is essential in a world where governments are always waiting in the wings, all too eager to plan our destiny for us. And, as the bakery example shows, the legal infrastructure in over half the world cannot or will not allow the dream or the hope of owning a small business.

And in those same parts of the world neither can the legal infrastructure support basic improvements that engineers and builders otherwise could construct in short order. But you cannot build, say, a modern water system if there is no honest legal system to maintain it.

Consider the water crisis in the sub-Sahara. You have seen pictures of a stately, dignified woman in a flowing gown with a water jug on her head. That jug weighs more than the luggage allowance at the airport. The hours, the human hours, the toilsome hours, the heart-wrenching, backbreaking hours a woman spends just trying to bring water to the family are staggering.

By cautious estimates, on the African continent alone it takes over sixteen billion hours each year to bring water to the family. That is sixteen billion with a B. But new water systems cannot be built and maintained where corruption holds sway. This is not just because of the lack of money; it is because of the lack of law and property rights.


There are some who say your generation has less power than previous ones because a more interdependent world reduces our power to make unilateral policy choices. In my view this understates your capacity and potential. You are among a new generation of university graduates who see an interconnectedness in our world and its universe that far surpasses what previous generations could understand. An interconnected universe is manifest in all fields of learning and endeavors. The earth sciences teach this in a concrete, formal way. Science, and in particular quantum physics and astrophysics, may soon yield stunning explanations of dark matter and of our common link to the universe. As is evident in the new communications technology, this more interconnected world touches all of our work and culture, over the whole range of the sciences, law and business, and the arts and letters. "Legally blonde" in a law school a half a world away. The new awareness gives you new power. You have a potential to design and to create and to define and to project your own life and work, a potential far greater than given to your predecessors.

As you think how best to advance the idea of law and the freedom that it secures, please remember that you must understand our own heritage of freedom. This brings us back to the point of beginning. When the Americans rebelled, the world was puzzled. We said we wanted freedom, but it seemed to England and Europe that we were already the freest people the world knew. So we had to act at once to send a fax or an email explaining our case. This was the Declaration of Independence, and then, some eleven years later, came the Constitution of the United States. The result was, and has been this: As Americans we look to the Declaration of Independence, to the Constitution, to our heritage of freedom to define who we are. And let there be no doubt: This dynamic, by which the documents of liberty are part of our self identity, part of our self image, is the envy of oppressed peoples. But this linkage, this connection between the history of freedom and who we are can disappear if we ignore its dynamic force.

So it follows that the Constitution does not belong just to judges and attorneys. It is yours. And with this possession come serious responsibilities. It is not just the President who must preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. All of us must do so. But you cannot preserve what you do not revere; you cannot protect what you have not learned; you cannot defend what you do not know.


If we are conscious of the heritage that defines us we are empowered in a special way. We come to this inevitable conclusion: law and freedom become even more priceless when we give them to others. That is why law and freedom are an ultimate expression of the human spirit. As Americans we know this and, indeed, we have the inward sense that it must be true.

This insight and empowerment can become all the greater for you who have studied at Stanford. Whatever your area of study, whatever your career, whatever deep personal hopes and aspirations you have, you should understand their basis in law and freedom. You must use this knowledge and power to work with your counterparts here and in other nations to advance law and freedom in your own time. If you do so, later generations will be more secure. And later generations will be grateful for the resolve you made here, for the resolve you made at this University, here at Stanford, here on this day, the day of your commencement.

Thank you. We wish you well.