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Stetson University College of Law
Commencement Address
"Live By Your Oath"

Remarks prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez

Gulfport, Florida
Saturday, May 10, 2003

President Lee, Chairman Landers, Dean Dickerson, Dean Gardner, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Faculty, Family, Friends, and most importantly, Graduates:

I am delighted to be with you this morning, and very pleased to accept this honorary degree - thank you.

On a day when you are mourning the passing of Dean Vause, I want to express to the entire Stetson family and to Dean Vause's family my most sincere condolences. You graduates today are a very special legacy of his work and his life.

It is always an honor to be asked to give a commencement address. It is a special privilege to be asked to give it at a law school I respect so much - first from competing against your moot court team while I was in law school, and later knowing many of your graduates and faculty in the bench and bar.

Let me right at the beginning say "congratulations." You have made tremendous sacrifices to reach this point. You have shown great resolve. You probably thought that this day would never come, but it has - and soon, you will never again have another final or get called on in class.

Of course, you are not alone in feeling a sense of relief. I can assure you that it is shared by the families and friends who stood beside you as you pursued your degrees. They have supported you through your challenges and your many successes. And the joy that you feel today is their joy, too.

Like many of you, I arrived at my law school campus 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.

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.

Today, the only thing standing between you and your diploma is this commencement address. While this gives me the advantage - and ensures a captive audience - my goal is to see that you leave here with your diploma, and that it gets into your hands as quickly as possible.

But I want you to leave here with something else as well: 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.

And that is something all of you can do.

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!

My greatest wish is that you leave here with as much respect and passion for the people you serve 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�"

Yet, even though public service is an obligation, it is far from being a sentence. I have always thought that my service to others has helped me to better understand the law, my community, and even myself.

Through a commitment to service, your life is going to be blessed in ways you cannot imagine today - in ways that those who do not serve their communities will never know. You have had a taste of this already by fulfilling a graduation requirement that your University helped to pioneer: the obligation of each student to serve the less fortunate of their community through pro bono work.

In meeting this requirement, you became part of a great tradition of the legal profession; 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 a 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 great deal from the experience.

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

One of my mentors when it comes to public service is an Orlando attorney by the name of John Kest, who recently became a circuit judge.

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

We have been reminded on countless occasions recently that there is no public service more noble - and none that can come at a higher price - than service to one's country in the armed forces. Through the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have seen the great courage of the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States of America.

Weighed against the continued repression of the people of Iraq and the continued threat to the United States posed by the regime of Saddam Hussein, President Bush understood that his only choice was to lead the coalition forces into Iraq. But the decision to send our young soldiers into battle was not made lightly.

The war that liberated 25 million Iraqi citizens also claimed the lives of 142 U.S. service members. What you have probably not heard is that at least 10 of those soldiers died for a country that was not their own. They were immigrants, members of a group of more than 37,000 U.S. soldiers who serve willingly in our military even though they are not American citizens.

I want to tell you about one of them: Lance Corporal Jos� Gutierrez, age 28, of Los Angeles.

Jos� grew up an orphan in the slums of Guatemala. He was living on the streets by the age of six, and was taken in by an orphanage when he was nine. At 22, he left for America, saying that he knew there was more to life than being poor.

Jos�'s journey took him more than 2,000 miles. He traveled some of it by foot, some by bus, some by hopping freight trains. And when he reached the U.S. border, he entered illegally, and was allowed to stay only after claiming to be a juvenile. Jos� found his way into the Los Angeles County foster care system, where he bounced from foster home to foster home until finding a family that embraced him and loved him as their son.

To continue his education and repay the country that took him in, Jos� enlisted in the Marines and proudly took the Military Oath of Office. He told his foster mother that if needed, he would give his life to defend the children of Iraq.

On the second day of the war, Corporal Gutierrez became one of its first casualties.

President Bush signed a special order soon afterwards granting Jos� full citizenship and ensuring that the country for which Jos� gave his life was his own.

Lance Corporal Gutierrez died "living his oath."

His remarkable story reminds us that a new spirit of public service has swept across this country in the nearly two years that have passed since September 11, 2001. The President has led the nation to build on this moment by redefining public service to embrace a new "culture of responsibility."

Your pro bono service is certainly part of this. 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.

You may have heard President Bush talk about the USA Freedom Corps. The Corps matches volunteers with service organizations in their communities, and fosters an American culture of service, citizenship, and responsibility. Most of these opportunities do not demand any special skills - just generous 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 1962 when the pastor announced from the pulpit that some teenage kids had arrived from Cuba and needed homes. He asked whether anyone would 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.

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

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. If you do, you will have innumerable opportunities to change someone else's life - at the same time you enrich your own.

For as George Washington Carver so memorably said, "How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong - because someday you will have been all of these."

Good luck to you, graduates. And congratulations.

Content Archived: March 16, 2010

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