Anand Jani '19
Ali Zablocki '19
Dean Golubuff’s final remark before giving former Attorney General Loretta Lynch the podium last Thursday, April 13, was, “It is not only that she has done amazing things, but she will inspire you to no end.” Dean Golubuff, holding true to Virginia Law’s vaunted Honor Code, did not lie. As the granddaughter of a sharecropper and the second black person, second woman, and first black woman to assume the title of the nation’s top law enforcement officer was welcomed to the podium by the first woman dean of UVa Law, it was hard to not to recognize the historic irony and symbolic significance of the moment. As she bestowed the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law upon General Lynch, the University of Virginia acknowledged “the contradictory nature of its founder,” as General Lynch artfully put it.
Representing the University of Virginia’s highest external honor, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal is awarded jointly by the University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello. The award is also issued in architecture, civil leadership, and global innovation. General Lynch’s remarks, titled “The Role of Lawyers in a Post-Truth World,” were given in acceptance of the award.
“When we do confront a truth, if that truth is uncomfortable or challenging, do we turn towards it to expand our world? Or do we simply yell our views more loudly? Where is our pursuit of truth today?” General Lynch began. Over the course of the next forty minutes, General Lynch wove together a narrative that explained the role of an attorney: the empathizer, the justice seeker, the nuanced observer, but, above all, the champion of and for the truth. “You are all entitled to your own beliefs, but you are not entitled to your own facts,” General Lynch fervidly declared, alluding to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous maxim. Continuing in this vein, she emphasized that mere repetition of a claim does not make it true. On the contrary, General Lynch propounded the idea that truth is the product of maintaining a breadth of perspective and “the openness of mind necessary to see both sides of an issue,” or, as the case may be, all facets of a problem rather than a simple dichotomy of black and white. It was clear that in her mind, truth unblinded by dogma is the foundation of law, which in turn is the most powerful tool with which to fight injustice and promote equality. “Facts mean truth, and once we adhere to truth, the law comes to our aid naturally,” is a Gandhi quote which General Lynch repeated for emphasis.
Throughout her remarks, General Lynch grounded her reasoning in anecdotes from her life in public service, including as Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. She advocated for a fact-based approach to voting rights and in implementing community policing initiatives, noting that those communities with the most successful such initiatives have made pointed efforts to include the people whom they are meant to protect in planning them. Additionally, General Lynch emphasized the importance of public service regardless of which political party is in power, noting that, even if on a personal level one does not support policies being implemented or believe they serve justice as one may hope, there is valuable training to be had, and ultimately such experience may prove valuable in attaining leadership positions through which greater influence may one day be exerted.
It was evident from the time the law school announced the title of General Lynch’s speech that the 2016 presidential election would loom heavily over the talk. However, aside from a few brief mentions, General Lynch refrained from directly referencing the election or mentioning names. Instead, the former Attorney General opted for a broader theme of how distrust erodes the foundations of democracy and how common truths must be accepted by all.
In particular, General Lynch built on the idea that because truth is not the sole property of one faction of a conflict and, rather, each side’s unique reality informs its perspective, the distillation of all sides’ truths is necessarily the starting point of successful problem-solving. In searching out truth and considering these dual perspectives and realities, compassion and understanding are key. Finding a platform from which to solve the existing problem is the paramount consideration, not convincing the opposing side that they are wrong. Unless such common ground can be found—whether in public or private practice—there can be no solid ground from which to build a solution. As General Lynch succinctly put it, whenever a client walks in the door, his or her complaint is likely only a symptom of an underlying problem. In order to figure out the true concern, it is necessary to actually spend time with them.