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Florida State University College of Law
Commencement Address
"Live Up To Your Oath"

Remarks prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez

Tallahassee, Florida
Saturday, April 27, 2002

President D'Alemberte, Dean Weidner, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Faculty, Family, Friends, and most importantly, Graduates, I am delighted to be with you this afternoon.

It is always an honor to be asked to give a commencement address. It is a very special privilege to be asked to give such an address at one's alma mater. I am grateful for your invitation. Being back in Tallahassee, surrounded by so much garnet and gold, brings back a flood of happy memories.

As your commencement speaker, I would be neglecting my duties if I did not start off by saying "congratulations." You have sacrificed mightily to reach this point. You have shown tremendous strength and resolve. You probably thought that this day would never come, but it has - and soon, this burden you have been carrying will be behind you.

Of course, I am speaking to the parents, spouses, and everyone who supported you along the way.

Graduates, your families and friends stood beside you as you pursued your degrees. They have shared in your challenges, your frustrations, and your many successes. And the joy that you feel today is their joy, too. Now is an appropriate time to say "thank you" to your supporters for the love and encouragement that have made your journey possible.

Like many of you, I came to Florida State unsure of where I wanted my education to take me.

I knew that I wanted to practice law. I felt strongly that being an attorney would allow me to serve my community in ways that another profession might not. But if you had asked me back then if I thought that I would one day be serving in the Cabinet of the President of the United States… well, I - and a lot of my law professors - would have had a good laugh.

For a Cuban refugee, this seemed highly unlikely.

As I have since learned, a law degree gives you a broad background for many careers, and can take you places you never imagined. I am excited for you for the opportunities ahead.

On occasions like this, speakers are often tempted to leave the graduates with an impressive-sounding piece of advice - something you will spend the next few minutes or so thinking about, and then promptly forget. There has never been a shortage of experts - and otherwise - eager to step up and share their advice with the leaders of tomorrow. In fact, advice is the one graduation present that does not cost the giver a dime, which probably explains why you are getting so much of it lately.

In breaking with tradition, I want you to leave this ceremony today not with a bit of advice, but with a challenge. And my challenge to you is simple:

Live by your oath.

The Oath of Admission to the Florida Bar is all of 209 words, but if you plan to practice here - and I sincerely hope that you do - these are the 209 words that will guide you throughout your career as an attorney.

Through our oath, we promise to seek results in our work that are fair and just. To show respect to those we come in contact with, and to treat them honestly. To accept responsibility for our professional conduct. To uphold the highest standards.

I can almost hear you thinking, "Well, of course I can do that!"

And of course, you can.

But the challenge is not in saying "I can." The challenge comes in swearing "I will." Because I am here to tell you that living by your oath will not always be easy. If it were, you would probably not be required to raise your right hand and swear to uphold it under penalty of disbarment!

The commencement address at a college of law is traditionally a time to tackle the big themes that will challenge you once you have sworn your oath and are admitted to the Bar. These are topics like "The Ethics of Lawyering" and "The Morality of Law," the kind of subjects speakers can get away with on occasions like this, where the audience has no opportunity to escape.

But I want to focus your thoughts in a different direction and use our brief time together to consider something equally important as legal ethics and morality.

My greatest wish is that you will leave this University with as much respect and passion for the people you serve and the colleagues you serve alongside, as you have for the law itself.

Unless you do, you are not truly "living your oath."

When you enter the legal profession, you take on a commitment of service to others. This is more than a suggestion; the obligation to public service is mandated in your oath, in its very last sentence, which reads "I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed…"

Even though public service is an obligation, it is not a sentence. I have always thought of service to others as a gateway, and traveling through it has helped me to better understand the law, my community, and even myself.

Because of this commitment to service, your life is going to be blessed in ways you cannot imagine today - blessed in ways that those who do not serve their communities will never know.

You have had a taste of this already in fulfilling your pro bono requirements.

Some of you worked with abused or neglected children. Some of you helped homeless individuals, the elderly, or people with disabilities. Every day outside this campus, lawyers working without financial compensation guide couples through the adoption process and into parenthood, help minority owned businesses grow and prosper, mentor high school kids.

Lawyers who live by their oaths and commit themselves to a lifetime of service, open the judicial system to those with limited means and unpopular causes. Members of the Florida Bar give well over a million hours of their time every year to their communities. We cannot measure the impact of those hours, but I can assure you that it is profound.

I hope your experiences in pro bono work have been rewarding. That has certainly been the case in my own life.

When I began practicing, I was one of the first bilingual lawyers in the Orlando area. And so I became the person that poor, Hispanic families would turn to for legal advice and representation. Many of them, of course, had little or no money. I helped however I could, and learned a lot of what I know about the law standing at their side.

Influencing another life in such a profound way brings with it a deep sense of satisfaction that I want you to know for yourselves.

I have two mentors when it comes to public service. The first is my wife Kitty, who I met here at Florida State. She was fascinated by her anthropology course; I was not so fascinated by it and needed to crib someone's notes. We have been together ever since.

Wherever we have lived, Kitty reaches out to the community to serve new causes and meet unmet needs with an enthusiasm I truly admire.

My second mentor is an Orlando attorney by the name of John Kest.

John and I first met here in law school and practiced together for 14 years, and I have to say that his dedication to public service borders on the fanatical. As a guardian ad litem, he delves into his work with tremendous passion. No abandoned or abused child has ever had a better advocate than John. No lawyer could have a better role model, either.

John has been honored many times for his contributions. But public service to him is not about the recognition. It is about giving a voice to the voiceless, and giving back to his community.

Americans have a long tradition of public service - of neighbor helping neighbor and stranger standing with stranger during trying times. Some people give back by seeking a career in government, as civil servants. Or they choose elected office. Half of all Americans give their time to their local school, church, neighborhood association, hospital, or other service organization.

America's enduring strength is the character of our people. We saw this following the horror of September 11th in the outpouring of charity and volunteerism that sent more than a billion dollars - and an equal number of prayers - to the families of victims and survivors.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, we have rediscovered our obligation to our fellow citizens. The President saw this immediately, and since the first days following September 11th, he has been leading the nation to build on this moment and redefine "public service." In his State of the Union Address, he called on each of us to dedicate at least 4,000 hours over our lifetimes to serving others, and said:

"In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like. We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self."

Your pro bono service is certainly part of this "culture of responsibility" the President has outlined. But I ask you to open your eyes to the possibility that you can change lives in other ways, as well. Not everybody needs a lawyer, but countless Americans need somebody.

For every talent you possess, there are opportunities to share it with someone in need.

You may have heard President Bush talk about the USA Freedom Corps. This is a new way to match volunteers with service organizations in their communities and foster an American culture of service, citizenship, and responsibility.

Most of these opportunities do not demand any special skills - just big hearts. Whether it is through the USA Freedom Corps or a need you come across on your own, I challenge you to answer the call to public service, and live up to - and beyond - your oath.

I understand in a very personal way that volunteers can change a life, because they changed mine.

Walter and Eileen Young were in church one Sunday morning in 1963 when the pastor announced from the pulpit that some teenage kids had arrived from Cuba and needed homes, and would anyone be willing to take them in. With hardly a pause, the Youngs agreed to open not only their home but also their hearts to a teenage boy from a land they did not know, about whom they knew nothing, and whose language they did not speak.

The success I have achieved in my life, I owe in no small way to the community caretakers who reached out to me in so many different ways. Public service is my way of giving back something to a community that has given so much to me.

If you allow yourself to be guided by compassion for others, you will have many opportunities, both inside and outside of your work, to change someone else's life, at the same time you enrich your own.

In 1968, in Mexico City, the best runners in the world ran one of history's most grueling marathons. Because of the high altitudes that are hard to walk in, much less run in, many world-class athletes grew disheartened and quit the race.

More than an hour after the gold medal winner had been crowned, the lights were turned off and the last spectators began trickling out of the Olympic stadium. Then, a lone Tanzanian runner entered the darkened coliseum. As he plodded into view, some laughed. Their laughter turned to silence as the exhausted runner, feet bleeding, knee wrapped in a dangling bandage, slowly moved across the last 400 meters of his race. The stadium lights flashed back on.

As he took his slow, painful strides, the crowd that had mocked him a few minutes earlier now cheered him on. When he finally stumbled across the finish line, holding his damaged leg with both hands, the crowd roared.

Years later, someone asked the former Olympian why he had continued to run the race, hours after it was clear he had no chance for a medal. The aging athlete replied: "I come from a small, poor country. Many people made sacrifices for me to go to Mexico City to run in the marathon. They did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish it."

It has been a long journey to this point today for the Class of 2002, as you finish one lap of your great race and begin another. After you accept your diploma and make your way out into the world, I urge you to take my challenge to heart - to live by your oath and show compassion for those you meet along the trail. For like the Tanzanian runner, you have not come all this way just to begin the race.... you have come all this way to finish it.

Good luck to you, graduates. And congratulations.

Content Archived: March 16, 2010

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