Kennedy Praises Values of Public Service

March 20, 2006

Sen. Edward KennedyPublic service lawyers are the perfect models for how to face the decisive issues of the 21st century while upholding the values and ideas of the Constitution, said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in his keynote address March 18 at the annual Conference on Public Service & the Law. This year’s conference attracted more than 400 students, attorneys, professors, and community members, who debated and discussed topics in public law as well as public service careers. Kennedy, a 1959 graduate of the School of Law, stressed the importance of working towards the common good and also offered tough words for the Bush administration.

“There are countless ways to be a public service lawyer,” Kennedy said.

The wide dispersal of legal service programs is a relatively recent accomplishment, according to Kennedy. In 1961, there were no national legal service programs and few groups devoted to helping the underprivileged and underrepresented. At the time, most poverty laws were considered too controversial for the government to support. “There had long been legal aid and public defender offices in big cities and few privately funded groups who made poverty law a part of community development organizations,” he said. “But hardly any taxpayer dollars supported them.”

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ’51, as chairman of the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, helped trigger a national movement to provide legal aid to the poor. “Under the banner of fighting urban youth crime, the committee allocated funds in various federal departments to pay for legal service offices in poor communities,” Kennedy said.

In 1964, Congress developed a national anti-poverty program as “a source for legal services funding throughout the country.” When the incoming Nixon administration attempted to abolish the program, Congress not only defended it, but created the Legal Services Corporation, an enduring, federally funded program. Despite continued attacks on the program, Kennedy said he and others on Capitol Hill protected and nourished the program until it flourished throughout the country. The legal services movement reached fruition with the 1971 nomination of Lewis Powell for the Supreme Court.

“The nomination sailed through the Senate,” said Kennedy. “[This was] in large part because Powell had proved his dedication to the constitutional principles of equality and fairness by his lifelong devotion to the legal services movement.”

Kennedy detailed his own experiences in public service, beginning with his career as a political campaigner for his brother John’s successful presidential run in 1960. He emphasized to law students the connection between his experiences and their own blooming careers.

“I hope some of you will join a district attorney’s office as I also did as a young lawyer,” he said. “Or perhaps you’ll be a public defender, or a legal service lawyer dealing directly with clients. These are all inspiring ways to become involved in public interest law and effective ways to learn the practical art of [being a good lawyer] as well.”

Kennedy reflected on the idea of the U.S. Senate as an establishment responsible not only to the American public, but to the founders of the United States as well. The entire structure of the government owes its preservation throughout American history not only to the foresight of the founders, but to the American people. The power of the government depends on people willing to execute its promises and uphold the American Constitution, according to Kennedy.

“It’s no wonder that those of us in the Senate have copies of the Constitution ready at hand,” he said. “For us, the Constitution is not just an historic document contained in glass at the National Archives…The status and responsibility that the founders gave us is meant to be applied every hour of every day.”

Preserving the American legacy for future generations is the ultimate duty of the Senate, and that struggle is at a critical juncture with the current Bush Administration, Kennedy argued. The body of government that helped solve the struggle for civil rights, that developed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and dealt with the moral and political complexities of Watergate faces a new challenge in Kennedy’s eyes.

“I can remember no time, no time in my life when it has been as important as it is today for the Senate to serve a check on the executive branch,” he said. In his view, the current administration “seized on the 9/11 attacks” as a way of asserting powers “that no president has ever had.”

Kennedy criticized the president’s call for warrant-less electronic surveillance. The connection between torture and extraordinary rendition and the current policy of pre-emptive strikes against countries suspected of harboring and supporting terrorism also concerned him.

“Together, these and other actions demonstrate the administration’s clear rejection of the Constitution’s demand for a balance of powers among the branches of government,” he said. “In my judgment, it’s a stunning arrogation of power that would have made the founder of this great university, Thomas Jefferson, roll over in his grave.”

Kennedy criticized the administration’s failure to provide information to senators and the public on charges of torture within the military. Military investigations and prosecutions “focusing on those at the bottom of the chain of abuses” are not conducive to solving the issue, said Kennedy. “Many of [the top] officials [who allegedly advocated such methods], rather than being disciplined, have been promoted and honored,” he noted, pointing to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The issues of detention, surveillance, and torture are making media headlines with good reason, according to Kennedy. “Beneath the issues of the day is the issue of a lifetime: whether Congress will find the courage and conviction to perform its constitutional role…When we fail to hold the executive [branch] to account, [the structure of the government] is weakened, perhaps permanently.”

The ultimate responsibility to protect and preserve the Constitution is placed on “all of us here today,” he said. “As the lawyers and leaders and senators of the future, you have a special obligation to educate the public on these issues by teaching and writing and speaking about them and working with groups that care about these issues. So you have your assignment.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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