Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been back in her home state and hometown over the weekend, taking part in graduation ceremonies at Duke University.
The 57-year-old lawyer who grew up in Greensboro and Durham is one of Duke’s seven honorary degree recipients.
On Saturday, Lynch spoke to Duke’s law school graduates at a hooding ceremony as the students, similar to her at a different arc in her career, are starting something different.
Lynch, a veteran prosecutor who has been at the upper echelons of the country’s power, did not mention her successor Jeff Sessions, the former Alabama senator now at the helm of the U.S. Justice Department. Nor did she talk specifically about Sessions’ push to undo Obama-era sentencing policies and ramp up the war on drugs. She did not take questions from the media before or after the event.
Lynch, once described by Obama as someone who “battles drug lords and mobsters and terrorists and still has the reputation for being a charming people person,” was able to weave some of the hot topics of political debate into her 20 minutes on stage without making it sound like a partisan stump speech.
She did so with humor, making note of her height, barely 5 feet tall, and the request from graduation ceremony organizers to keep her remarks succinct.
“We all know the saying, that the best commencement address is like the best commencement speaker – short,” she said with a smile.
Then she went on to encourage the soon-to-be lawyers to think big as they go out into a world full of possibilities, but never to lose sight of the people who cannot be or are not in the rooms of power.
“When I was sitting where you are, attorney general was probably right above point guard for the Blue Devils in what I thought I could do,” Lynch told the graduating class sitting in folding chairs on the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the basketball team plays home games. “But I also want to tell you that you don’t have to become the attorney general to leave that mark. It is not the title on your door, it is the passion in your heart.”
Lynch said that though law school often focuses on cases and scholarly questions of history, leaving some to wonder whether there were any modern legal issues left to tackle, the former attorney general listed an array dominating current 24-hour news cycles.
“Debates over the most basic concepts, literally who gets to be an American, who and how do we define a citizen of the world, who is responsible for addressing climate change,” Lynch said. “These debates are not going to be over soon.”
As attorney general, Lynch found herself on several occasions taking stands against North Carolina laws – House Bill 2 and the 2013 elections law overhaul that limited voting opportunities and required voter IDs. Lynch called barriers to voting “an emblem of national shame.”
“When I sat where you are today, I have to tell you I never dreamed of the opportunities I was going to have—to play even a small role in big decisions. I never imagined that I would be a part of a case that would send a clear message that police officers are not above the law,” she said. “When I sat where you are today, I never imagined that I would be able to play a role in extending the protection of the law to our LGBTQ Americans, friends, brothers and sisters, or mending the relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve. I never imagined those things when I was in your chair. But to be able to do them has been the honor, and in fact the joy, of my life.”
But Lynch added: “Too many of our fellow citizens still live in fear of law enforcement and those who seek to protect and serve,” she said. “In a country founded on equal justice under the law, too many Americans are literally priced out of the courtroom. They cannot afford to vindicate their basic rights.”
She also noted frustrations in this country and around the world that have become more pronounced in the current political climate. She spoke of “growing divides in our country — between the coast and the heartland, between the cities and the rural communities, between those with higher education and those without.”
“We’ve all seen the recent rise in nationalism in so many parts of the world,” Lynch said. “Too many people feel there’s a wall there between them and that progress, and that they have nowhere to turn for redress.”
Though her nearly two years as the country’s top prosecutor were not free of criticism – one of which was her encounter with Bill Clinton on the airport tarmac, back in the news again after the firing of Jim Comey from the FBI – Lynch received a standing ovation from some at the close of the law school ceremony.
“There is no greater need than right now,” Lynch told the graduates. “There’s no better time to be alive. There’s no better time to be a lawyer than right now.”