“Law is but the means, justice is the end.”[i] This is Georgetown Law’s motto. Consider also, however, this statement from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I hate justice . . . I know if a man begins to talk about that, for one reason or another he is shirking thinking in legal terms.”[ii] I’d like to reflect briefly on these two quotations. But, before doing so, I want to talk about Bob Dylan.
Last year, Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”[iii] One such song is “My Back Pages,” released in 1964.[iv] In the last verse of the song, Dylan wrote:
My guard stood hard when abstract threats too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms quite clear, no doubt somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now
As a protest singer in the early 60s, Dylan spoke out against perceived injustices—the abstract threats too noble to neglect. Answering the famous call of “Which side are you on?”,[v] Dylan had picked a side in the cultural and political battles of his day, and he felt he had something to protect. With a clear sense of justice in mind, Dylan wrote songs, defining good and bad . . . quite clear, no doubt somehow. As he matured, however, Dylan’s youthful hubris gave way to a humbler perspective—I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
Many things have changed since Dylan wrote these words, but one constant is how individuals often think we grasp ultimately elusive concepts, like justice, that defy easy categorization. Which brings me back to that motto and the Holmes quotation.
As a newly-minted Juris Doctor from Georgetown Law, it is incumbent upon me to use the skills I have obtained to make the world a better place. I owe it to those who have invested so much in me! In this pursuit, truly, “Law is but the means, justice is the end.”
But, to Holmes’s point, justice is an amorphous concept all-too-easily appropriated impermissibly. In seeking to do justice, then, I must always remember that the people whom U encounter do not themselves fit into simple binaries—good or evil, right or wrong, just or unjust. I must learn to zealously advocate for clients, whoever they may be, while remembering the humanity of those opposite me. I must remember that while being right is great, being good is better, and the two are not always coterminous. I must be ever mindful that my own understanding of justice is and always will be imperfect, limited as I am regarding my intellectual horizons and my capacity for moral reasoning. As such, I must be circumspect as I wield the tools I have received, seeking justice while self-aware of the limits to my comprehension of that ideal.
This process of injecting empathy and authentic reflection into my life and career calls to mind Dylan’s words in another song he wrote in the early 60s, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”[vi] In the song, Dylan recounts the story of a world-weary young traveler who nevertheless resolved to go back into the world to speak out for the forgotten, declaring in the final verse, “I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.” Like that traveler, we all have experienced a lot these past three years. I started this journey as a pretty naïve first-year law student who questioned what I had gotten myself into after a short while. Yet here I am, about to receive my diploma. I made it—I know my song well! But this is just the beginning. I have work to do in a world that is not good or just on its own. And I have been equipped with tools to ensure, in the timeless words of Dr. King, that the arc of the moral universe will indeed bend towards justice.[vii]
[i] See Georgetown Law, Public Service, https://www.law.georgetown.edu/about/public-service/ [https://perma.cc/9CZ6-DMTR] (last visited Mar. 19, 2017).
[ii] Letter from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to John C.H. Wu (July 1, 1929), in The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes: His Speeches, Essays, Letters, and Judicial Opinions 435 (Max Lerner ed., 1989).
[iii] Press Release, Svenska Akademien, The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 (Oct. 13, 2016), available at https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/press.html [https://perma.cc/V68K-PVPQ].
[iv] Bob Dylan, My Back Pages, on Another Side of Bob Dylan (Columbia Records 1964).
[v] See, e.g., The Almanac Singers, Which Side Are You On?, on Talking Union & Other Union Songs (Keynote Records 1941).
[vi] Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (Columbia Records 1963).
[vii] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Our God Is Marching On! (Mar. 25, 1965), available at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching [https://perma.cc/F5SF-GVMW].