Remarks of Anthony D. Romero Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union Inter American University of Puerto Rico School of Law Commencement Address San Juan, Puerto Rico June 6, 2006 Welcome and congratulations. I would like to thank Dean Luis M. Negron Portillo for asking me to join you here, at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, for this inspiring event. Dean Portillo and the faculty have done an extraordinary job, giving you the tools you need to practice law in a region that I believe will be increasingly important in the years to come. A generation ago, my father felt that he had to bring his family to the mainland to have a chance to succeed. Now, with Latin America and the Caribbean stable and growing, a Puerto Rico where the cultures of North and South America meet is poised to play an important and growing role. Your time here and your training will allow you to take advantage of the opportunities; your professors and all of those here who made your education their priority deserve your thanks and recognition today. I would also like to thank the many students who asked that I address you on this occasion. There are few things more gratifying in life than earning the recognition of intelligent and talented young people like you. You have a low tolerance for hypocrisy, a great appreciation for sincerity, and a hunger for the unvarnished truth. Now that you are nearly ready to practice, there will be times when you are tempted to abandon these virtues for cynicism and expediency. Resist that temptation; make a commitment today to hold tightly to idealism and sincerity throughout your careers. In return, I will commit myself to living up to the standards your invitation implied – and to keeping my remarks short. What a great day! This is the successful culmination of years of undergraduate study and of legal education. Of course, because we are Puerto Rican, an achievement like this is not just an individual triumph. It is a family achievement. It was that way on my first day of college, when my entire family drove down to Princeton with me – mother, father, grandmother and sister, all in our best clothes. It was a strange and demanding environment for a working-class kid: a campus was swarming with the sons and daughters of privileged families and elite schools. But I took comfort from the knowledge that my family was with me in spirit and, if needed, in person, just as your families have been here for you. I knew that the discipline, encouragement and love that my family had given me, my whole life, would carry me through whatever challenges I faced. And because my college career rested on their support, I knew that whatever I accomplished would be a credit to us all.
And so, although we are here today to celebrate you graduates, we should also give thanks and offer congratulations to the mothers and fathers who worked so hard to get you here, the grandmothers and grandfathers who set a little money aside and said a little prayer for you at Mass, to help you reach this day.
Now, becoming an attorney brings with it its own set of unique demands. A law degree and membership in the bar puts you in an exclusive club. You can earn an excellent living, you are protected from competition, and you are the center of a system that gives you tremendous access to our political leaders and the courts. In return, however, you have one important obligation that few others share: to protect and maintain our system of justice. As attorneys, we must ensure that we live in a nation where the guilty are punished, the innocent are freed, and every person receives due process and an impartial hearing. Justice is a hard thing to achieve. Even officers of the court are tempted, every day, to take shortcuts, to make decisions because they think that they “know” a person is guilty or innocent, because it’s simpler to assert something than to prove it…especially if you have the power of the state on your side. But when that happens, when people begin to see the system as arbitrary or unchecked, we all suffer. When I was a child, growing up in a rough neighborhood in New York City, I saw what happened when the justice system broke down. I lived in a dangerous public housing project as a kid. Every day, my sister and I would race home from school and bolt the many locks on the door, from the inside, with the hope of staying safe another day. Of course, there were police around. And I should say that the vast majority of the police officers I deal with today, as a New Yorker, as an attorney and as Executive Director of the ACLU, are dedicated, open-minded, and committed to the law and The Constitution. They make my city safer, and I thank them for it. But back then, back in that neighborhood, life was different. Most of the police didn’t like our neighborhood. The felt threatened. Many were prejudiced against the blacks and Puerto Ricans who lived there. Though most of my neighbors were like my family, hard-working and law-abiding, the police often saw all of us as criminals. There were arbitrary arrests and questioning, brutality, and disrespect. The most public representatives of the justice system abandoned due process and impartiality for force, prejudice and intimidation And so the system broke down. Even law-abiding people feared and avoided the police. Nobody talked to them when a crime was committed. The police became more frustrated and less cooperative and, in turn, so did the residents. Our only sense of security came from those locks on the door and had we been robbed or attacked, it never would have occurred to us to talk to the police. And justice was whatever you could get away with. Because they used their power in an angry and arbitrary way, the police lost their moral authority, the residents lost faith, and the criminals won the right to operate almost as they
pleased. . Today, the same thing is happening on an international level – and I fear that the results will be the same. The Bush administration has begun to act like the police did in my old neighborhood – like well-armed bullies who can do what they want. The Bush Administration claims the right to almost unlimited powers in conduct of the war on terror. They say they can ignore Congress and the Constitution. They say they can by-pass the courts. They say they can reject international treaties. And they want us to accept that their actions are legal and constitutional simply because they say so. But I ask you: is this administration really interested in justice? If they were interested in justice, would they be gathering billions of phone records from innocent Americans. Would they be holding American citizens without trial as enemy combatants in military brigs, as they did Puerto Rico-born José Padilla? If they were interested in justice, would the Bush Administration keep open a prison at Guantanamo where suspects are held for years without hearings and subject to “waterboarding” and coercive interrogation techniques, a prison that the United Nations has demanded be closed? Without their actions ever having been approved by the courts or the Congress, the Administration has abandoned due process and impartiality for force, prejudice and intimidation. And they claim to be able to use the power they have taken, whenever and however they want to. But once we give the government the power to break the law in one case, they can use it in any case. You can already see that happening here in Puerto Rico. Here, the FBI has launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation against the independistas, calling them terrorists, and using the post 9/11 security environment as an excuse. But the independence movement has been peaceful for decades. And many of the violent acts which radical independistas were accused of committing weren’t even committed by real independistas. And now, in the name of increased security they’re working to impose a death penalty on Puerto Rico, even though your constitution forbids it and you consciences oppose it. And the government is trying to violate your privacy and track your movements with a new bar code scheme for your license plates. The war on terror is not an excuse for the federal government to suspend due process, to intimidate our citizens and to invade our privacy.
And the Bush Administration isn’t just doing it here, in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. They’re doing it around the world, making us appear as lawless as those we fight against. But that’s not justice. And it doesn’t work. Instead, we are alienating law abiding citizens like you. We are losing allies. We are breeding terrorists. And we are persuading people who now see us as arrogant and brutal, to look the other way when our enemies walk among them. In making our nation less just, we have made our nation less safe. Doing the hard work of justice – seeing that corners are not cut, powers are not abused, and prejudices do not become policies – this wins us allies and respect. This keeps us safer. This makes the world better. So, that’s what I am here today to ask you to do: the hard work of justice, whether on a global stage, at a local level, or simply in the day-to-day work that you will do. At the beginning of this speech I asked that you hold on to the passion and idealism that are so common in youth and too rare in middle age. Now, let me tell you why, using the words of a baseball player who won fame as an athlete but who still captures hearts and imaginations because he stayed true to his own passions and ideals. Roberto Clemente, who was born on this island, who gave so much back to Puerto Rico when he became a star, and who was killed off our coast while bringing supplies to the victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake once said, “[a]ny time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on Earth.” I believe that. And I know that the talent and drive you brought to this school and all that you have learned here give you have the opportunity to make a difference. Don’t waste it. Join me in the fight for justice. Help the poor and dispossessed get access to the justice system, too. Use your training and prominence in the community to take political leaders to task when they try to take power at the expense of our system. After your years here, I know that you are spectacularly well-qualified to fight for justice and, as Roberto Clemente said, to make a difference during your time on Earth. Congratulations to all of you graduating today, and thank you to all the people in this room who worked so hard to make this graduation possible.