Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Hathaway Brown Commencement Address
June 9, 2017

Good morning and thank you Dr. Bisselle for that introduction.

Dr. Bisselle, members of the board of trustees, faculty, distinguished guests, friends and family, and especially the Hathaway Brown Class of 2017, it’s a high honor to serve as your commencement speaker this morning.

The best commencement speakers succeed in delivering a relevant message in a minimal amount of time. I will try.

In preparing my remarks I reviewed what other graduation speakers have said to those about to receive diplomas ...

Some of the oft repeated statements, go something like this ... you are our future, follow your passion, there is nothing that you cannot do, whatever you do, strive to make a difference, and of course ... change the world (hopefully for the better).

I think that you’d agree that these are lofty goals, and the big question is how?

How are all of these things to be achieved? Can they?

These imperatives seem to suggest that each and every graduate has the power to do it all and should want to.

So my advice is be sure that what you are trying to attain is really something that you want, that fits you and is attainable. Start with some really manageable goals, goals you want to attain and then move on to more and more.

The message here is incremental progress. Build on your successes but don’t forget to savor each success as it comes.

Something else, when you are identifying your goals be honest in your perspective and disciplined in your execution.

I’m often amused when some person claims that they will strive to make a difference, follow their passion and change the world ... but please don’t expect me to take classes before noon, I’m just not a morning person. You know what my advice would be to that young person ... get to be a morning person. You’d be amazed how much went on in the world while you slept. You have to keep up the minute you wake up. It only takes a little bit of desire and a lot of self-discipline.

In fact self-discipline is necessary if one is to succeed in any endeavor. Self-discipline in all that you do.  Like most things, the development of self-discipline is incremental too. It’s akin to the learning of any skill or the nurturing of any talent. Start small, succeed and then build on that success. Soon it will become ingrained, a habit. Something you do without thinking.

An example of what I mean is the making of one’s bed. Making one’s bed every morning is an exercise in self-discipline that really has virtue beyond a neat bed. It’s reflective of organization, clear thinking, neatness, order and so much more. I’ve been preaching this for years.

I’m not the only one who shares this perspective ...

Imagine my surprise when I learned that there is a NYT #1 best selling book that validates my perspective here: It’s Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life ... And Maybe the World.

The author is Adm. William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, a leader for over 40 years in our nation’s naval forces.

Here is a passage from the book that explains it all:

“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

Another necessity, if one is to succeed, is simple but important: strive to be an informed and engaged citizen of our state, our nation, and of the world.

The simple truth is that most people aren’t.

The Anneberg Institute conducted a survey in 2014. Here are some of the results and conclusions:

The survey of 1,416 adults, released for Constitution Day finds that while little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.

“Although surveys reflect disapproval of the way Congress, the President and the Supreme Court are conducting their affairs, the Annenberg survey demonstrates that many know surprisingly little about these branches of government,

I say to you in all sincerity: Never has it been more important to embody the virtues of citizenship, and as our future leaders, you must impart this message as you go forth with your education and your lives.

Civic engagement must include an understanding of how government systems work and why. You must know the Government’s power and its limits.

We have three branches of government. The least understood is the Judiciary. Understanding the important role courts play in our society can be eye opening and not just for young ladies about to graduate.

Anneberg’s managing director of survey research, Ken Winneg, said that, unsurprisingly, people who are politically engaged and better educated proved to be better-informed. “If you’re excited about politics, if you discuss politics with family and friends, you tend to be more knowledgeable,” he said. “The key is involvement.”

And Here’s why that knowledge is important. The Supreme Court of Guam has concluded that:

War, diplomacy, social or economic pressure have been used throughout history to resolve disputes. They have literally shaped the world.

However, today, court systems reflect man’s desire to settle disputes and make societal progress in a more peaceful, equitable and socially acceptable manner.

Justice continues to evolve in our land with every case or motion brought before the courts.

Courts are often on the forefront of shaping society – in some instances way ahead of the executive and legislative branches. In fact, some landmark cases that I’m sure you learned about during your time at Hathaway Brown have been engines for social change: Take for example, the end of legal discrimination.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

In Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws that prohibited inter-racial marriage in 1967 and held that marriage was a fundamental right.

Those cases and the social change that resulted, the shifting of our educational institutions, the equality of all people, no matter their race, creed, culture or religion were seismic social and legal shifts when announced ... but today, even though the promise of racial equality remains imperfect in practice, we accept the premise of racial equality and never question the premise because, it is the law.

And we are a nation of people who obey the law because we believe in the Rule of Law.

Fast forward to this time, your time. Are events happening that are on par with those of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s? Of course they are.

During your time in high school, you’ve watched history being made – the kind of history that your daughters and sons and granddaughters and sons will learn some day in their history and government classes ...

They will know that in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, thereby granting the constitutional right to marry to ALL people throughout our country. The Obergefeld decision is just as momentous and for some as seismic as the civil rights opinions of 60 years ago were to Americans then.

And right now, the federal courts are deciding the lawfulness and constitutionality of the President’s executive order banning immigration from six Muslim countries.

I point to these important cases as examples, but I also point to them to illustrate a broader message.

Courts recognize that human beings have rights. Courts do not give us rights; the federal and Ohio constitutions do not give us rights. The courts’ role is to recognize the rights we all have by virtue of the fact that we are human. We are endowed by our creator with these rights. The Courts’ role is to ensure that no one takes them from you. That is a duty that falls to the courts and one could argue, is the most important duty of any branch of government. Take it from me, it’s an awesome responsibility.

And so, my advice to you as you move forward?

Stay engaged. Learn all you can. Share that knowledge with and educate others.

After all, Hathaway Brown, together with your parents, or grandparents or other loving persons has given you one of the best educations that any young woman anywhere in America can be given. You have been taught to learn not for school, but for life (school motto).

Your life as a citizen – whether in Ohio or elsewhere – will be much better served by making a personal investment in learning, about the courts and the awesome responsibility they wield, as well as the executive and legislative branches of the government.

Remember President Thomas Jefferson’s word: “knowledge is power, knowledge is safety, and knowledge is happiness.”

As you leave here today, go forth as powerful young women, as safe young women, and as happy young women.

God bless, good luck, and make your beds!