U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder marked the start of the centennial celebration of Duquesne University's law school Wednesday with a call for the lawyers of tomorrow "to aim higher, become better, and do more for the most vulnerable among us."
"Not only do you have the ability to create the change and progress you hope to see. You also have the responsibility," he said. "Today, I call on each of you to choose action, to choose compassion, and to choose a future of service -- the service of justice."
Mr. Holder addressed a crowd of more than 700 students, faculty members, administrators and graduates in the ballroom of the Duquesne Union. Also in attendance were numerous local lawyers, judges and elected officials, as well as David Hickton, U.S. attorney for Pennsylvania's Western District, and two of his predecessors, Mary Beth Buchanan and Frederick W. Thieman.
The attorney general made his remarks hours after announcing that the Obama administration no longer will defend the constitutionality of a federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage. But he made no mention of the controversial decision during his 11-minute address, focusing instead on the reason for his appearance -- the law school's centennial.
Still, there were parallels between the reasoning he spelled out in the administration's latest decision and his recitation of some of the achievements of the Duquesne law school.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Holder had noted that during congressional debate of the Defense of Marriage Act, there were "numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate relationships -- precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus" the Constitution is designed to guard against.
While speaking at Duquesne, he hailed the university's history of serving working-class children of immigrants, women and minorities.
"Duquesne has stood as a force for progress -- and as an institution dedicated to training highly skilled, ethical lawyers, and to strengthening the effectiveness and integrity of our justice system," he said. "That commitment dates back to this law school's earliest days. In the early and middle decades of the 20th century, Duquesne prepared several graduates who were among the early few who opened the doors of the legal profession to women and racial minorities.
"This law school admitted women as early as 1915, when some states did not even allow women to practice law. [And] Theron Hamilton, the first African-American graduate of the law school, received his degree in 1925, long before many of America's law schools began to admit racial minorities."
Mr. Holder was introduced at the event by Ken Gormley, dean of the law school, who has been friends with the attorney general for 10 years.
"He has fulfilled his duties with grace, compassion and steadfast adherence to the rule of law and to the proposition that all citizens are entitled to equal treatment under our system of laws," Mr. Gormley said.
The event concluded with a brief question-and-answer session, in which Mr. Gormley asked Mr. Holder eight questions submitted by students of the law school. Topics ranged from the legalization of marijuana (the administration is opposed) to Mr. Holder's heroes and his favorite law school classes.
In response to a question asking what challenges and surprises he encountered in his job, Mr. Holder said it was the amount of time he spends on national security matters, which he placed at about 60 percent of his average workday.
Marissa Cocciolone, 23, a second-year law school student, said she was not disappointed that Mr. Holder did not mention the administration's decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act.
"I think to introduce such a hot-button issue might have undermined the purpose of his speaking here today, which was to celebrate Duquesne and reinforce the purpose of the law and what we study," she said. "So even though it would have been absolutely fantastic and interesting to hear him talk about that, I think it would have overshadowed why he was here.
"He did a good job of covering the topic of the centennial and what public-interest law means and what it means to Duquesne. It's nice to see someone who hasn't strayed from the fundamental concept of serving the public and the integrity of what we're here to do."
Law school professor Joseph S. Mistick echoed that sentiment while calling Mr. Holder the perfect speaker for the event.
"His life story is so much like the story of the law school," Mr. Mistick said. "We came up from common roots, and we have not lost our values. We have not lost sight of who we are and who we need to be in this society."
Dan Majors: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456.