In remarks that ranged from references to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to growing up under the cloud of Jim Crow, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law convocation keynote speaker, the Honorable Roger L. Gregory, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, inspired the graduating class at its hooding ceremony on May 18, 2018.
Judge Gregory is the first African-American to sit on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. President Bill Clinton recess-appointed him to the court in December 2000, and President George W. Bush commissioned his lifetime appointment to the court in July 2001. Gregory is the only person in U.S. history to be appointed to a federal appellate court by two presidents of different political parties. (Read more about the Carey Law hooding ceremony.)
Here are Gregory's convocation remarks:
Honored guests, friends, and to the Class of 2018, congratulations.
This is an incredible honor. Matthew and Allison, wonderful job. Thanks a lot for making my job harder.
Matthew, I graduated from law school 40 years ago this month, and you reminded me how old I am when you said that My Cousin Vinny and Legally Blonde were the films. It would have been for me To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, and Judgment at Nuremberg. But I’m not a hater, though.
This is an honor, it really is, to address you. One of my favorite parts of being a judge is having law clerks. These wonderful young people keep me energized, and I’m there with them 12 hours a day and they’re the only people I see. They’re family, and now they’re 60 plus getting close to 70, and I can tell you, the faculty, the academy, to you: Young lawyers, you make a big difference. You make a big difference in our profession, and I congratulate you today because you will make not only the profession but the institutions of America and even the world better. Because our institutions are of more consequence than our power and richness as a country. And lawyers, you give the advice and counsel that leads so many of our institutions. Therefore, the beating heart of our graduates, what calls you to this profession, what captures your spirit, your creativity will have much consequence to this nation and to the world. It is no small measure for me to say our future is in your hands.
And let me tell you this, you are a part of an aristocracy now. That’s right, you’re aristocrats. You can tell your family, “I’m an aristocrat.” You’re laughing. I’m serious.
Alexis de Tocqueville, when he made his incredible journey in 1831 through America traipsing about recording his observations, he recorded it all in a famous book, Democracy in America, an epic work that to this very day is still as relevant as it was those many years ago. This is what he said about lawyers: He said that lawyers represented an aristocracy. Not one based on birthright, but one based on your skills, and your knowledge, and your intellect. And you [lawyers] had a way of bringing people when they were carried away by their ideas and their passions, you conformed them into the rule of law. And his other observation, which I think is the most poignant, is what he said about America. He said America’s greatness is not because it has more enlightenment than any nation in the world. He said America’s greatness lies in its ability to repair its faults. He said that lawyers were the best barrier to repair the faults of the nation. So these fissures that we have and will have, you will be at the forefront. You will be at the vanguard. So that’s why in the brief time I have with you this morning I will not talk about jurisdiction.
Be careful now if I catch you sleeping, I will. But I won’t talk about jurisdiction or the cases that I had, they speak for themselves. We only speak about our opinions and our orders. The rest is left to history, and none of us can escape history and you won’t either. ...
I want to take this time very briefly to talk about your inward journey, because that’s what’s more important. Now, I know you want answers. Don’t worry about answers. I know you have questions, and most of your questions form like this, “Will I? When will I? And how much will I?”
I know the deal. It was the same way 40 years ago, I had the same thing. And those of you who know what you’re going to do this summer or immediately, fine, God bless you. For those who don’t know exactly what you’re going to do, God bless you, too, and don’t worry about it. It’s going to be wonderful. It’s going to be beautiful. The person who stands before you is a little boy from Petersburg, Virginia. In 1959 when I started school, if I had started school in a place 60 miles west there would have been no school. Prince Edward County from 1959 to 1964. So by geography of just over 60 miles, who would have thought that this little boy would be the first in his family to graduate from high school? Then to go on to college, then law school? But I’m telling you, don’t worry about the answers you have on your lips now. Instead, focus on the questions that are in your heart.
Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper said the function of genius is not to give new answers, the function of genius is to pose new questions that time and mediocrity can resolve. That’s awesome, isn’t it? That’s what geniuses do. They ask those questions that are just piercing and poignant. That’s what lawyers do. That’s what people who are interested in justice do. They just keep asking questions. “Why do we have to drink from water fountains? Why do kids have to go five years without an education? Why are people marginalized, dispossessed, disinherited? Why are there problems with access to justice?” They just keep asking these questions, and they’re just doggedly determined because it takes time and mediocre minds to resolve them.
Keep asking those questions. That’s what’s in your heart. Don’t worry about “How much?” I know you didn’t take a vow of poverty when you became a lawyer, I understand that. But in the end, your success will not be based on what you get by what you do. It will be based on what you become by what you do. The becoming, the inward journey, that trek that goes on and on. It’s all about beginning. My first jury trial was 40 years ago when I was a third-year law student. At Michigan, I did legal aid. Here’s how it started, real quickly. That’s why you don’t worry about where you are at the present. I walked into court, and you had to have an adviser by Michigan law. It was a jury trial, and the judge looked at me and said, “I don’t want him in my courtroom.” And I said to myself, “I don’t think he knows me. I haven’t filed any briefs or anything,” but the problem was he didn’t want students trying cases in his court. He said, “Set him down.” The adviser said, “Your honor he’s the only person prepared to try this case. I’m just here by law to be an adviser.” Judges don’t like to mess up a jury day, so the judge said, “All right, but if he makes one mistake, I’m going to set him down.”
But my point is, it went well, and in the last days of 2001 as a private lawyer, I had a jury trial. What bookends. Think about the bookends. This is just one book today. But the book will end many times and many ways and on different segments in your life. But what I’m saying is, don’t worry about the questions that are forming in your head now. Worry about the ones that you’re going to pose that are going to make mediocre minds in time come to a resolution. That some little boy or some little girl is going to look at you and say, “I can do it because she did it, because he did it.” Because it’s that important. It’s that aristocracy that de Tocqueville talked about. The barrier to the faults. The barriers to the faults that make sure that we can be all that we can be in what justice does.
And I can’t sit down without honoring those brave men and women who were determined to have justice. I wouldn’t be standing before you had it not been for people like Charles Hamilton Houston who taught Thurgood Marshall, and Thurgood Marshall, it goes on, and Oliver Hill and Wally Brown and Robert Parker, and on and on.
Let me quickly tell you this. Let me tell you what a sign is. In the courthouse I’m in today, I’m the chief judge, very humbly, and I’m very thankful. It’s not about me, but I want that to continue to be a blessing to others and to the nation because of service. But the first time I was in that building, I was doing court-appointed work, appointed by the federal court to represent a lady from Alabama. I walked into the lobby, same lobby I go through every day now as chief, and I said, “Ma’am, my name is Roger Gregory and I’ve been appointed by the federal court to represent you.” She happened to be a white lady, and she looked at me and her heart just dropped. I could see it in her eyes. Because her assessment was, “Oh my goodness, they appointed an African-American lawyer, just lock me up right now.” But you know what? I was undaunted by that because there was an opportunity to work on the faults that we talked about. Because a time will come when people will assess you incorrectly. They will make assumptions about you incorrectly, but your assignment is more important than their assessment.
Nobody worries about what’s your color, or what’s your stripe, or what name you call God or don’t call God at all, and who you marry, and who you love, and what you look like. Don’t let people’s assumptions stop you because you have an assignment, and when you get your hood, think of yourself as being hooded for your aristocracy. And aristocracy has room for everybody, not by birthright or how much money is in their pocket; whether they are documented, undocumented, been American for 50 years or five days or whatever might be.
Do not rest. Make no peace with injustice. Wherever you go, find the training point at every point you can in your life. Do that, always.
Now I’m going to tell you one thing, two things, then I’m going to sit down. One is this: Let me set it up this way. You can go to medical school and be a great physician and know very little about healing. You can go to a great seminary and be a great theologian and know very little about faith. And you can go to a wonderful fine law school like Maryland (I doubt anyone here, though) and know very little about justice. Because healing, faith, and justice is something different than just the mechanics and the science and arts of the discipline. I want you to be the person who understands justice.
An example I give you is the first. Ten years old, I injured my eye. I hid it from my mother. She came home and said, “What’s wrong with you, boy?” I said, “Nothing, nothing.” But really my vision was blurry, I was afraid. So she takes me to the emergency room. I was 10 years old, and it was before the Civil Rights Act. I go there, they look at my eye, they say, “Oh, he’s fine,” and they’re about to send me home. Follow me now. But it just so happened there was a young, white ophthalmologist that came through the emergency room. Now you have to give me some poetic license right here because I don’t know this is true, but maybe he had just finished a 16-hour shift; maybe he was just tired; maybe he just wanted to get home and watch something on TV. I don’t know what the maybe is. But he just happened to say, “Let me see that boy.” And he looked at my eyes and said, “That boy’s eyeball is cracked, he’ll be blind by tomorrow.” And he said, “Prepare him for surgery,” and the nurse looked at him and said, “We have no room for him.”
He looked at her, and without missing a beat he said, “Listen, this boy is going into surgery at midnight and you better have a place for him.” The next morning I wake up, my mom and dad are next to me. I’m in a room almost as wide as this stage with seven other empty beds. You see, they had run out of rooms on the side that was designated for me. What I’m telling you is this: I want you to be that young white physician. That’s a moment at 10 years old I never forgot because no matter what happens on the outside ... I saw a light in him that no darkness could obscure.
And that’s how I want somebody to see you just like that surgeon. Doing surgery at midnight. When somebody says they don’t have enough money, don’t worry, let me see that case. “Well, you’ll be ostracized, nobody cares about his or her case.” No, let me look into his eyes and see the light of justice. And I am going to perform surgery in a courtroom, in briefs, or wherever it might be. I want you to be that surgeon, because when you are that surgeon, if you do good things like that, you’ll understand as I close, just like Reinhold Niebuhr said, you’re going to need help, embrace each other. But he says this, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.”
Lastly, “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.”
I wish you hope, faith, and love in your inward journey that’s going to reap the benefits of love and hope for many outward. God bless you.