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May 24, 2006

Press Contact: Jodi Bart, UT Law Communications, (512) 232-1408.

Senator Judith Zaffirini's Commencement Address From the 2006 Sunflower Ceremony

The University of Texas at Austin School of Law was proud to have Texas Senator Judith Zaffirini speak at graduation on Sat., May 20, at 3:30 p.m. at the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Special Events Center at UT-Austin. A total of 468 students walked in the ceremony.

Remarks by Sen. Zaffirini:

Thank you, Dean Goode, for that warm and generous introduction, and for everything you and your colleagues, especially our former Law School dean, President Bill Powers, did to make this day possible. Haven’t they done a wonderful job?

Today we celebrate and honor not only you, the UT Law School class of 2006, but also, cumulatively, the success of the academic team that prepared you for today; the support of your loved ones—parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends, and significant others; and the trust of your bankers who believed in you.

Graduates: I can imagine how you feel, for I remember my own UT graduation when I received my PhD.

Spouses: I don’t have to imagine how you feel, for in 1968 my husband, Carlos, received his law degree at the UT Sunflower Ceremony.

Parents: I know exactly how you feel, for our son, Carlos Zaffirini Jr., joins your sons and daughters among the graduates. We can’t believe it. Our babies are attorneys!

Equally important, they hold degrees from the best law school in Texas and from one of the best in the nation.

My main message today, however, is simple: Congratulations, Graduates, whether you receive a Doctor of Jurisprudence or a Master of Laws degree today: We are so very proud of you.

Indeed, we are justifiably proud because as attorneys you are empowered not only to make a significant difference in ways that only attorneys can, but also are especially prepared to answer the critical questions of our day, particularly: Who lives? Who dies? Who decides?

These are not rhetorical questions: Who lives? Who Dies? Who Decides? We do.

Literally, the Texas Legislature decides who will live and who will die when we write laws related to capital punishment and when we fund or fail to fund life-saving programs related to immunizations, child abuse, AIDS medication, and drunk driving.

Last year, for example, in a sub-committee I chaired, I sought $15 million for AIDS medication. After losing the vote 1-to-3 twice and 2-to-2 once, I went to Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and explained, if we fund this medication, persons with AIDS can continue to work and be productive, tax-paying citizens.

If we don’t, they will get sicker and sicker, costing the state increasing sums of money for their health care—then they will die.
Because of the intervention of Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, I prevailed in the full committee, and 20,000 Texans with AIDS will live, not die.

Who lives? Who dies? Who decides? We do. You will. Or as our president would say, you will be the deciders.

You who will write, administer, enforce, and/or challenge our laws will lay the foundation for life-saving and life-taking decisions.
Figuratively, you who will participate in the civil litigation process, including as plaintiff or defense lawyers, as jurors or judges, particularly in high stakes cases, will decide who lives and who dies financially.

Literally, you who will engage in the criminal justice system, including as prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, and judges—by your words and actions, your preparedness and effectiveness, your character and philosophy—literally will decide who lives and who dies.

What standards, what principles will you employ to answer the related critical life-or-death question that plagues all who engage in our legal system: Do the circumstances at hand demand justice or deserve mercy?

In Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare writes that earthly power is most like God’s when mercy seasons justice. She says: “The quality of mercy is not strained,...It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

She adds: “Though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy.”

A former prosecutor once said he fought for justice every day until he became a criminal defense lawyer and championed mercy for his convicted clients. He learned, as you will, that you will win cases you thought you’d lose and lose cases you thought you’d win.

Why? The system is marvelous, but it isn't perfect, and neither are our laws or our judges. Yet the more imperfect the system, the laws, and the judges, the more intense should be the character, courage, and tenacity of attorneys like you who should be emboldened by the degrees you celebrate today.

I remember being absolutely terrified 30 years ago as a plaintiff in a lawsuit that focused on sex discrimination and violation of civil rights. We mustered every ounce of courage we could to take on the establishment, to witness friends morph into enemies, to cope with dishonesty and deceit—and ultimately prevailed.

Today I am insulted when someone calls me a courageous senator. I am no longer afraid. I do not need courage.

When a reporter asked me the secret to my success, particularly as a debater, I responded, “First, I pray to the Lord for inspiration, that He guide me in my words and in my actions. Second, I not only prepare, but over-prepare. Finally, Lamaze breathing exercises: I treat my opponent like a mild contraction.”

Please understand that we who gather on this stage are not asking you to be like us. We are asking you to be significantly better. If someone like me can grow up to be a state senator, if someone like George W. Bush can grow up to be president, so can you. With a UT law degree, you are prepared to do more and to be better. What we hope for and expect from you is greatness.

When you look back on today in 10, 15, 20 years or more, who will you be, what will you have done, and how will you have answered the critical questions of your day?

Whether you receive your Doctor of Jurisprudence or your Master of Laws degree today, you will have been well prepared to answer with confidence and with conviction.

My prayer is that the Lord will inspire you with the character, courage, and tenacity for the day someone asks the critical question: Who lives? Who dies? Who decides?

And you must answer, “I do. I will.”

May God bless you, Graduates, and may God bless Texas. On behalf of everyone who loves you and cares about you, I say, from the bottom of our hearts, Congratulations!

Related Link:
Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini to Speak at Sunflower Ceremony, May 20: