Dear Alumni and Friends:
Few if any alumni of Cornell Law School have had as great an impact on the American legal system as
Samuel Leibowitz '15. Between 1933 and 1937, he courageously defended nine African Americans-known as the "Scottsboro Boys"-who had been quickly convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged rape of two white women in Alabama in 1931. Against long odds and faced with hostile, racist attitudes and death threats, Leibowitz was ultimately able to win a precedent-setting case before the Supreme Court that permitted blacks to serve on grand juries in the South.
The "Scottsboro" legal saga was one of the most protracted in American history, but one that ultimately resulted in advancing racial justice and the rights of the accused. The public outcry over the case was an important forerunner to the civil rights movement.
Today, a century since Leibowitz graduated, he remains an inspirational figure for our graduates and for lawyers everywhere, an example of the "well trained, large minded, and morally based lawyers" that our founder A.D. White envisioned. Of White's three goals, the idea of the Law School aiming to educate "morally based" lawyers might seem the most dated in a modern, pluralist society characterized by deep (and often seemingly intractable) moral disagreement. But, as I said to our incoming students this past fall, I do not understand White's injunction to prepare "morally based" lawyers to mean that we should try to "cram our moral commitments down [students'] throats." I understand it instead as urging us to educate lawyers who are also people of integrity.
Learning how to respond when you perceive wrongdoing is an important part of being a lawyer. Preparing our students for these challenging situations is a vital aspect of our mission as a law school. And the collegial and inclusive atmosphere we have created at Cornell Law School is the ideal place to make that happen.
Lawyers who manage to bring their deepest commitments and their legal practice into harmony will be the kinds of lawyers who are thoughtful about their work and satisfied with their careers, no matter what corner of the profession they occupy. As
Gary Azorsky '83 and
Jeanne Markey '83 explain in this issue of the
Forum, there is something immensely satisfying about working on something bigger than themselves, "where the law can be used to achieve public policy goals."
In the years since the Scottsboro Boys' trials, we have had many graduates, like Leibowitz, who have stood up to wrongdoing or injustice in the face of overwhelming odds and at great personal risk. We expand on the idea of lawyers taking a courageous stand against injustice in our feature article on the tenth anniversary of the Exemplary Public Service Awards. In that article, you'll meet ten alumni, one portrait for each year of the award, who have built meaningful careers working in the public interest. To date, we have honored close to one hundred alumni with these awards, not only for their individual contributions, but also because of their collective influence on the Law School community. We are a richer community because of this diverse and robust group of students and alumni who are dedicated to an incredible breadth of causes.
Serving this institution as its dean is an honor and a privilege. A constant source of encouragement is knowing that our graduates are applying the skills and lessons learned at Myron Taylor Hall in private practice, business, and public service for the good of our nation and the world. Please accept my gratitude for all you do for Cornell Law School and my best wishes for the months ahead.