Paul D. Clement, the lawyer who argued before the nation’s highest court on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other groups in their legal challenge to the federal government’s contraceptive mandate, addressed the 127th annual commencement of the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law.
In a graduation ceremony held May 27th at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Clement received an honorary degree from CUA for his “stalwart defense of the constitutional right to religious liberty for all.”
Clement encouraged the law school graduates to use their new degrees to “make a difference” in the lives of others in ways only a lawyer can do. “Only a lawyer can file a law suit for another individual to right a wrong or to vindicate another’s constitutional rights,” he said.
He recalled a recent news report he heard on the radio that said a large number of voting places in the District of Columbia are not accessible to those in wheelchairs.
It is an intolerable situation, he said, in a democracy that cherishes the right to vote and guarantees individuals access to public services.
“Your fellow citizens can complain to elected representatives or protest the situation, but you are in a position to do more,” Clement told the graduates. “...The rights of individuals are already enshrined into federal law, but without effective lawyering, those rights exist only on parchment.”
A native of Cedarburg, Wis., Clement received his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a master’s degree in economics from Cambridge University. He graduated from Harvard Law School and served as the Supreme Court editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Most lawyers, he said, will go their entire careers without filing a lawsuit, let alone a federal civil rights law suit. “But by virtue of your law degree, every one of you will have the chance to make a difference in the lives of others – by protecting their property, shielding them from deportation or resolving their tax disputes,” Clement said.
A law career is also often a means to a good livelihood to provide for one’s family, he said, but he also stressed the importance of helping those less fortunate through pro bono work. “I would encourage each and every one of you to take time out to volunteer your time and talents to help others,” he said.
Clement, a partner at Bancroft PLLC, served as the 43rd solicitor general of the United States from June 2005 to June 2008. He has argued more than 80 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, more Supreme Court cases since 2000 than any lawyer in or out of government. One of those cases, Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, is a landmark Supreme Court decision protecting the rights of individuals and organizations to exercise religion while earning a living. All of his work for the Little Sisters of the Poor – a case which involved an unprecedented Supreme Court request for additional briefing on a proposed solution after oral argument – was done free of charge.
“Pro bono work is a particularly good way to use your law degree to make a difference for others,” he said.
Clement spoke of several pro bono cases he has worked on in the last several years, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, whom, he said, “resisted the government’s insistence that they violate their religious beliefs or face massive penalties.” In his oral argument, Clement noted eloquently, “My clients would love to be conscientious objectors, but the government insists that they be conscientious collaborators. There is no such thing.”
Those cases, particularly on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other groups, including the Catholic University of America, he said, reminded him of the “power of a law degree and reinvigorated my passion for pursuing our shared profession.”
After leaving government service, Clement said his work on behalf of two individuals – Cub McGhee and Terry Harrington – wrongfully imprisoned for 30 years in the Iowa state prison system. “As much honor as there was to represent all those government agencies, none of them ever gave me the kind of bear hug that Cub McGee did after the Supreme Court argument,” he recalled.
Clement also offered career advice and reminded the newly minted attorneys that sometimes not getting the position or “dream job” they hoped for “can be the best thing for your career...and the good Lord may have something better and something different in mind.”
He also urged the law graduates to not settle for the status quo, and not to be afraid to defend their beliefs. Clement said he recently read
H. V. Morton’s book, In the Steps of St. Paul, in which the author retraced the travels of St. Paul to ancient cities, such as Tarsus, St. Paul’s hometown, and both Antiochs in Syria and Pisidia Those once-thriving cities were reduced to ruins some 2,000 years later due to various reasons of neglect and mismanagement.
“Things do change and not always for the better. The work may not always be glamorous, but unless you dredge the ‘proverbially river’ and fight to protect the rights you believe in when they come under attack, things will not only not get better, they can get much worse,” he said.
Most of those in the audience came of age during a time when religious liberty was protected, and the teachings of the Catholic Church and laws of civil society were not often in conflict, Clement said.
“The Little Sisters case demonstrates that it will not always be the case and it’s very important for each one of you to fight for those rights that you believe in so that things do not change for the worse,” he said.
Clement urged the graduates to view the law as not just another business, but rather a profession characterized by advanced learning and high principles. “Catholic University of America has taken care of the advanced learning,” he said. “But maintaining the practice of law as a profession is in many respects up to each one of you.”
He reminded the young lawyers to not just work for profit, but to provide pro bono work and not hesitate to dismiss an unethical client. The legal profession requires long hours that often come at the expense of family, friends and other pursuits, said Clement, adding that keeping those ties is of utmost importance in an attorney’s life.
Clement noted the last time he was in the National Shrine was for the funeral Mass in February of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a legal giant for whom Clement served as a Supreme Court clerk.
“(His) professional accomplishments got scant attention at the celebrations of his life. Rather his strong faith, his wonderful family, his gift for friendship across ideological lines...,” he said. “By all means use the law degree you are about to receive make a positive difference in the lives of others, but do not let it make a negative difference in your own.”