Transcript of Governor Barnes' Commencement Address at UGA Law School


Law School Graduation 2000

Governor Roy E. Barnes

Gov. Barnes: (Applause) Thank you. Thank you. Dean Shipley, distinguished guests, relieved graduates, ladies and gentlemen; the first thing I want you to know is this is a short speech. So, you don't have to wait long. (Applause)

Last Sunday in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution there was an article about the Al Hatcher family and how four generations of that family graduating from the University of Georgia paralleled the history of Georgia. Because of my friendship and knowledge of the Hatcher family, it caught my interest. The story illustrated the changeless and absolute nature of this place called Lumpkin School of Law. If history's any judge, among your number today, there are innumerable members of the General Assembly, too many judges and justices to count, and maybe even a governor or United States senator is in your midst. I hope you didn't make the wrong one mad along the way. (Laughter) For those of you that become governor, as ten of your predecessors have done, you'll have the honor of having your portrait placed on the second floor of the law school and will become the favorite target of all first-year students who will ask, "Who is that old geezer on the second floor?" (Laughter) But the world does change, even at law school. Half of you are women, a far cry from 30 years ago, when I was a student and a young woman named Sarajane Love was the only woman in her class, and who today is one of your professors.

You are smarter and more prepared than any other class in the history of this school. You enter the world of the law at a time when your state is on the brink of greatness; and perhaps, your courage and accomplishments will be what it takes to get us there. Your struggle over the past three years has been to master the rules and the regulations of the law. You have learned to respect the law and to revere it. You have learned, as John Locke once said, the tyranny begins where law ends. You probably feel, as I did when I sat where you sit today, satisfied that you have mastered the learning of the law. I have some disappointing news for you. You have learned the cold, dry pages of the law and the reasoning that will take you far, but the experience you are about to enter will everyday teach you that they call this the practice of law for a reason. You will soon put a live face to a hypothetical question and, as much as you may try, you will become personally involved with the clients that you represent. They will become a part of you and you will become a part of them. You will try to mold the law so that you will not have to tell the desperate individual who seeks your assistance, that there is no hope. That is the reality of the law and also its pleasure.

But today I want to talk with you very quickly about the responsibility that comes with a certificate that you will receive in a few months, marking you as an accepted counselor and solicitor of the law, authorized to practice and plead in the courts of this state. Now at the outset of this discussion, let me say that I believe the wealthy and the well-heeled deserve good legal representation as long as they pay full and fair fees for it. Fees pay taxes, educate children, buy homes and keep Georgia and her lawyers prosperous. In fact, I believe that good legal fees are a part of the punishment for the misdeeds of the rich and famous. As lawyers, we do not need to worry whether the rights of this class of our society will be adequately protected. As long as there are fees to be paid, lawyers will be there to assure that every advantage is afforded those who can pay them. This is not the group to whom you and I owe a duty of concern in order to assure that their rights are protected.

But there is another group in our society to whom we do jointly and severely owe a duty that, in my opinion, is not being paid. A common law, the right to practice law, was not a right, but a matter of grace of the sovereign. In accepting that grace, lawyers accepted a duty to represent, for free if necessary, people who could not afford their services. Somehow, in modern life, we have forgotten this basic premise. I would guess that there are very few in this class who have decided to represent poor people and landlord-tenant cases, or social security claims, or to practice criminal law, for that matter. The reasons are many -- the pay is low, the hours are long, and the clients are far from glamorous. Anyway, with Atlanta firms paying $100,000 plus for securities, tax, corporate, and intellectual property associates, who in their right mind would want to represent somebody being kicked out of an apartment or a criminal who is odds-on guilty, anyway? Well, the answer is you and I have a duty to represent them and the partners in those white shoe law firms have a duty to represent them, and all involved are failing in that duty.

Our legal system is one of the main reasons for our greatness as a nation. But the cold, hard reality is that far too many people face the possibility of an unjust outcome because they must attempt to navigate an often complicated legal system without the benefit of competent counsel. Why? Because competent lawyers engaged in the corporate practice or personal injury practice don't want to get involved. They don't have time, there's too many hours to bill, they have ever- increasing bills or loans from law school to pay. It doesn't help their reputation any either, and it might hurt their career. None of those reasons are new.

I want to tell you a story. Twenty-six years ago there was a young African-American man who stood in the middle of the road and stopped a car driven by a 17-year-old white girl -- the daughter of a steward of the local Methodist church. The young man had never been in trouble before, but he was arrested and charged with rape. He confessed on the spot and again at the police office after signing every waiver of rights known to man. Judge Luther Hames, a tough former district attorney, appointed a young lawyer who had just left the DA's office to defend the young black man who was charged. When the young lawyer found out about his appointment, he went to see the judge. He left his job as a prosecutor to run for office, he explained, and he was in the middle of his first campaign. It wasn't good politics, the young lawyer said, to defend a rapist, especially a black one, in the middle of election. And he told the judge, "He's guilty anyway." Judge Hames, who was a crusty old guy, slowly rose from behind his desk, and he told that lawyer that the defendant might be guilty, and the next hundred after him might be guilty, but there was someone out there he would represent one day who would be innocent and if he prejudged them all, he'd never be able to tell the difference. Then Judge Hames reminded him of our system of justice, which separates us from the lawless societies, and it only works when everyone receives competent representation. Finally, in a near fatal blow to the young lawyer's self-confidence and self-esteem, the judge told him that perhaps he should reconsider whether he really wanted to be a lawyer or not. Now, I was that young lawyer... (Tape pauses, but paraphrased)... 'and I represented that young man. He went to the penitentiary, and his mother wept in my arms at the conclusion of the case...' (Tape resumes)

Each of you have certain duties as lawyers that are the price you must pay for the grace to practice this glorious profession. You must speak when others remain silent. You must demand fairness when others seek expediency. You must confront injustice when others seek comfort. You must question when others seek silence. You must keep the confidences of the confessors against the demands of the powerful. That's what it means to be a lawyer, and oh, God, how I miss it!

Good luck, and God bless you all! (Applause)