Commencement 2015: Reflections on Justice

As I bid a bittersweet farewell to UC Hastings, and this wonderful publication in particular, I want to share with you the words from my recent Commencement address.  I was honored to be elected by my classmates to speak on our behalf, and I am grateful to everyone who put their faith in me.  I am especially grateful to the very patient friend who helped me draft the initial versions of my address—and to the others who gave me the courage to scrap it and write what we really believed needed to be said.  At all costs.  

Thank you, dear ones.  I'll see you out in the world!

-Sonya Rahders, EIC Volume 26

Student Commencement Address by Sonya Laddon Rahders
May 10, 2015 

Fiat justitia.  That’s what our school seal reads: “Let Justice be Done.”  But what is justice?  According to Black’s Law Dictionary, Justice is fair, free from bias or prejudice; Justice is reasonable and honest.  As they say, Justice is blind. 

Then in America right now, our justice is broken.

Our justice is not free from bias when police officers act as arbiters, their guns tolling the first bell of suspicion and the last bell of condemnation in one clean shot.  It is not free from prejudice when the news broadcasts civil unrest as criminal, calling out thugs and instigators, as if there is just one magic word that could possibly mean that a child deserved to die; there is not.

Our justice is not reasonable when a white man in a uniform can kill a black man in cold blood and walk away, but a black woman who fires a warning shot to frighten her abuser is sentenced to twenty years.  Our justice is not honest when it pretends that this society is American-Dream, equal opportunity, color-blind.   

We are in a moment of incredible social change.  Right now.  It’s hard to see it from inside this beautiful building, this educational bubble, in this progressive city, but it’s out there.  I promise.  And we have a responsibility to it.  

We have all taken different paths to get here.  Some rocky, some smooth.  But in about an hour, we will walk out of here with the same degrees.  We will be lawyers.  We will become lawmakers and protectors and prosecutors and educators; we will have special access to the seats of power, the people with money, the tools of control.  We will each occupy positions of undeniable privilege, by virtue of our education alone.   

Here at Hastings, we have learned to speak a language that unlocks the systems of this country; a language that is often unintelligible to the people it controls. Don’t let that go to your head – it doesn’t mean we get to keep it to ourselves.  It doesn’t mean that we get to hold on to secrets and dole out justice in small apportionments as we see fit.  There is a fundamentally flawed system of justice in place, and it has become our job to help repair it.

When we undertook to learn this language, we agreed to use it in pursuit of justice.  We agreed to share.  As we enter the ultimate profession of service to others, we have become interpreters.  Our responsibility now is to listen, and translate. To approach each question, each client, with an open mind and a critical eye.  To examine not only the facts but the context, to ask ourselves how justice can really be done. 

In the words of bell hooks, “Justice demands integrity. It’s to have a moral universe — not only know what is right or wrong but to put things in perspective, weigh things. Justice is different from violence and retribution; it requires complex accounting.”

We have spent the last three years learning tools of that accounting, and we embark upon the next stages of our journeys with an immense responsibility to use those tools well.

To borrow a current protest refrain, “no justice, no peace.”  So I do wish for justice.  But it’s too early to wish for peace.  Because wishing for peace means that I wish people would just pipe down and be silent again.  And I don’t, because I’m angry at these systems, too.  We have spent too long in silence, and silence is acquiescence, is it acceptance, it is implicit consent. 

What I wish for today is that we are successful in our pursuit of justice.  That we are bold enough to stand up to injustice, to identify it and call it out in whatever capacity we can.  That we are brave enough to demand that our new justice truly be honest and fair.  So I will finish the maxim: fiat justitia, ruat caelum: “Let Justice be done, though the heavens may fall.” 

Are we bold enough, and brave enough, Class of 2015, to seek justice at all costs?  I believe that we are.