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Remarks by Justice Peter T. Zarella
Attorney Admission Ceremony
June 14, 2004

Thank you, Chief Justice Sullivan. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today. The chief justice has recognized the personal journey that many of you have made to reach this milestone. I urge each of you, if you have not already done so, to thank those who have helped you along the way…without their reassuring support your path would have been even more difficult.

You stand on the threshold of your legal career. In a few minutes you will recite your oaths as an attorney and as a commissioner of the superior court, and open the door to the worthiest of professions. As Samuel Johnson said, "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." We trust that your time in law school, profitably spent, has provided you with both kinds of knowledge. We welcome you to a lifetime of the continual acquisition of further knowledge.

Biography of Justice Peter T. Zarella

Judges' Corner
 

 

A few short weeks ago, this court held its annual law day ceremony, the theme of which was "to win equality by law: Brown v. Board of Education at 50 years". In the 1954 Brown decision, our U.S. Supreme Court held that state laws permitting racial segregation in the public schools denied African American children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the fourteenth amendment to the constitution. The Brown decision involved separate appeals from four cases brought by the legal representatives of African American children in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. These children had been denied admission to public schools that had been segregated by the laws of each state, and it took an enormous amount of courage for their families to risk violent reactions and hostility in order to stand up and challenge the law as it existed at that time.

Noting that "education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments", this landmark decision ultimately opened doors, not only to public schools, but also to opportunities that eventually extended beyond the classrooms of America. Much is said, and deservedly so, about the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Brown, given the social climate of the times in which the decision was made. What should not be overlooked, however, is the historically significant role that the lawyers played in this milestone event and in other legal pursuits that have secured our freedoms in this country.

in Brown and in the other desegregation cases that preceded Brown, the lawyers evidenced, not only personal conviction and dedication to the cause of justice in bringing these cases for the plaintiffs, but also exceptional advocacy skills that provided the courts with the legal ammunition to make such a mark on our country's legal, social and political history.

The lawyer who is best known for his triumph in the brown case was Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice in this country. Marshall credited another African American lawyer, Charles Hamilton Houston, with the victory in Brown, saying, "We were just carrying [his] bags, that's all."

To put that quotation in context, it is important to know that Houston had been Marshall's former professor and mentor at Howard University, where Marshall attended law school following his rejection in 1930 - on the basis of his race - from the University of Maryland school of law. Marshall went on to graduate from Howard University School of Law, first in his class, in 1933.

Marshall's years of legal training under Houston prepared him and other young, African American lawyers to become the soldiers in the fight against segregation in this country. Houston was the architect, and Marshall the general contractor of a well-planned strategy to desegregate systematically the schools of this country. They built a solid foundation - state by state, case by case - that would support the final cornerstone that was the Brown decision.

It is relevant to our ceremony today to note that the course of changing the law that culminated in the Brown decision began with cases involving discrimination claims brought by African Americans who wanted to attend law schools across the country. It is no coincidence that these first segregation cases involved admission to law schools rather than the elementary schools in this country. The life experience of Houston and Marshall, along with their understanding of the mindset of their adversaries led them to conclude that it would be a strategic error to begin the struggle against segregation with cases involving young school children. It was also no coincidence that in 1936, a very young Marshall and his mentor, Houston, chose to take on the very law school that had denied Marshall admittance and to use a court of law to vindicate the personal indignity that Marshall had suffered. Marshall and Houston were co-counsel in the case of a twenty-two year old African American man named Donald Murray, a graduate of Amherst College who had also been denied admittance to the University of Maryland law school based on his race.

Marshall and Houston succeeded in securing the right for Murray to attend, but this early victory was only a partial victory because it was tempered by an awareness that the Maryland court of appeals had based its decision on the fact that there were no alternative law schools for African Americans in Maryland. Had there been any alternative option, Murray would not have been admitted. An unqualified victory would have to wait for another day, and patience was difficult. In the meantime, other cases involving segregated law schools presented new opportunities for building on the rights secured in the Murray case.

in a per curiam opinion in a 1948 case, Sipuel v. Board of Regents, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the supreme court of Oklahoma and held that an African American female was "entitled to secure legal education afforded by a state institution." That case was argued by Marshall, and it is significant that the supreme court in Sipuel relied upon a state court case, brought by Charles Houston, on behalf of an African American high school valedictorian named Lloyd Gaines, who had been denied admission to the university of Missouri Law School.

Armed with the confidence engendered by experience and his success in the Sipuel case, Marshall continued to hone his advocacy skills in yet another law school discrimination case, where in 1950, he pursued the cause of an African American man who had been denied admission to the University of Texas law school. In that case, Sweatt v. Painter, the successful arguments set forth in the Sipuel case and the Gaines case formed the building blocks that led to an important, unqualified victory for Marshall. The Sweatt v. Painter case, struck a strategic blow to educational segregation, and would set the climate for the ultimate victory for desegregation of all public schools in the Brown case.

The lesson to be taken from the hard-fought cumulative victory achieved by the lawyers in these desegregation cases is that lawyers have a unique opportunity to play a significant role in changing the course of history through the process of law. The freedoms we enjoy in this country are tested and secured in courts of law throughout this nation every day. As new lawyers, you share in the privilege, the opportunity and even in the obligation to play a role in the ongoing challenge of securing our freedoms.

The practice of law offers many different ways to play such a role in our society. You may choose to follow the path of many great litigators who have made the courtroom their venue for securing our freedoms, lawyers such as John Adams, who took on the very unpopular case of defending the British soldiers of the Boston massacre in 1770, or attorney increase mather, whose early book on evidence, the first published in this country, contributed to an end to the Salem witchcraft trials; or of those first female lawyers who, in the 1800s, began their individual campaigns to secure the rights of all women to attend law schools and to practice law in this country, women who laid the foundation for subsequently securing the right for women to vote, to serve on juries and to own property in their own names - women such as Ada Kepley, the first female law school graduate in this country in 1870, or Belva Lockwood, the first female member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar, or Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first female deputy district attorney in this country and the first woman lawyer in California in 1878, or Mary Hall, the first female lawyer in Connecticut in 1882, whose first court case involved property rights.

The list of other lawyers in our history who have taken courageous stances towards securing our freedoms is a long one that I can only touch upon today, but it includes lawyers who were willing to take on unpopular causes - lawyers like Clarence Darrow, who volunteered to defend a young science teacher named john scopes, who was indicted in 1925 for teaching the theory of evolution in the public schools.

The list also includes lawyers who made great personal sacrifices in the cause of securing our freedoms, such as Elliott Richardson, who stood up to president Richard Nixon in 1973, as a matter of principle, and resigned his prestigious position as attorney general of the united states rather than follow president Nixon's directive to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor. Whether it is this example of integrity or the examples of the courage and determination of all of the lawyers i have mentioned, all are monuments in our legal pillars of fairness that make our country's system of righting wrongs remarkable.

The adversarial process is our time-honored way of exposing all aspects of an issue. We believe that by vigorously setting forth both sides of a case, justice will prevail. But, while you should be zealous in your advocacy, you should also cultivate the equally important art of negotiation on behalf of your clients, as it is often through artful negotiation that a client's rights are safeguarded within the context of appropriate compromise.

Litigation and negotiation on behalf of a client are not, however, the sole avenues available to those of you who are called to use your education, talents and skills to secure personal freedoms for your clients. For example, when you agree to do pro bono work for an indigent elderly client who is overwhelmed by the medical bureaucracy, your efforts in safeguarding the rights of your client are just as important to that client as the landmark cases like brown and scopes are to others with different needs. The law protects individuals in diverse ways, and there is no exclusive path that must be chosen by honest, hardworking, committed lawyers who seek to make our society better, one case and one client at a time.

You are about to enter a noble profession. To uphold our liberties with the honesty, courage and respect that they deserve is today, as it has always been, the worthiest of pursuits. I extend to you, on behalf of the justices of the Supreme Court and the men and women of the Judicial Branch, the best of luck in your endeavor.
 

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