Former chief White House ethics attorney Richard W. Painter on Thursday urged graduates of Northeastern’s School of Law to uphold the law in the face of corruption in a Commencement address peppered with harsh commentary directed at the Trump administration.
Painter, a leading advocate for the rigorous enforcement of federal anti-corruption laws and regulations, criticized what he described as President Donald Trump’s violations of the Constitution’s ban on receiving improper payments, from individual states and foreign governments.
“It’s a serious threat to our country when foreign governments believe, and actually can, exercise a great deal of influence, not only over our elections but our government officials through financial relationships,” Painter said.
Painter did not limit his commentary to the White House. Too many officials, he told the graduates, have ties to companies and industries that, in turn, have influence over policy. Erosion of ethics, he said, affects all levels of government, from local to state to national offices.
“Corruption has been with us for too long,” Painter said, “just beneath the surface, ignored and tolerated for too long by members of the bar.”
School of Law graduates, he said, should work to restore the highest standards of corporate and government ethics.
“That is where you come in, because you went through this experience of watching what has happened to our government in the past few years.”
Painter also attacked the White House over efforts to ban travel to the United States by residents of some mostly-Muslim countries, as well as attacks on the press by government officials.
Painter is the S. Walter Richey Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Minnesota Law School. From February 2005 to July 2007, Painter was associate counsel to the president in the White House counsel’s office.
He told graduates they’ve received strong education and training at Northeastern, and they are equipped to “to stand up to power” and address corruption in government.
“Our Constitution depends on you,” he said.
Law school dean: On success in an era of changing norms
Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law, said the Class of 2018’s graduates have completed more than 230,000 hours of legal work at co-op 572 placements, working in 24 U.S. states and territories, Washington, D.C., and 13 countries.
He also highlighted some students’ specific achievements. Tess Foley and Alicia Cook earned the first victory for the school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic. Kyleen Burke unearthed new details in about the story of an African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1935, work that was featured in The New York Times Magazine. Alvin Benjamin Carter III earned national recognition for his intellectual property work.
Paul said that the Class of 2018 graduates face a world filled with uncertainty and change, one in which long-accepted norms of politics, social justice, and school safety are eroding.
“It will fall on you and your generation to return the rule of law and commitment to democracy to their proper place as the normal conditions of everyday life,” he said. “You could not have a better launching pad than Northeastern.”
At the conclusion of Commencement, James C. Bean, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, took a moment to acknowledge Paul for his leadership and accomplishments at the School of Law. Paul joined Northeastern in 2012, and he concludes his tenure as dean this year. “In many ways the law school is in better shape than it was when you took over,” Bean said, “and we all in the School of Law community and the Northeastern University community owe you a great deal of thanks and celebration.”
Faculty address: ‘Tug the arc of history toward justice’
Professors Karl Klare and Lucy Williams were selected by the graduating class to deliver the faculty address together. They also echoed Paul in that graduates have seen “their share of upheaval, social conflict, and tragedy” in the world during their three years at Northeastern. “Being an ethical lawyer committed to justice is a difficult job under the best of circumstances,” Klare said. “You are entering the practice of law in a divided country at a time when the nation’s commitment to legality is itself under threat.”
Williams concluded their address with this message: “We believe that your Northeastern education has taught you that in every situation, there is something you can do to tug the arc of history toward justice. We have faith in you, and we thank you most sincerely for what you have given us.”
Student speakers: Global journeys, powerful messages
Alexandra M. Tarzikhan shared how her journey to Northeastern began seven years ago, when she left her hometown of Aleppo, Syria, to pursue her undergraduate studies here. She earned a Bachelor of Science in health sciences in 2015, and then enrolled at the School of Law.
“This school has encouraged me to set goals that I did not previously think I was able to achieve,” she said. “I gave them my time and dedication, and my co-op experiences brought to light my passions and provided me with tools to reach my goals, and for that I am forever grateful.”
Jen Samantha D. Rasay, who grew up in the Philippines and in Hawaii, said that at Northeastern she discovered the tension between the privilege of earning a law degree and the oppression many marginalized communities face.
This tension, she said, “should spur us to challenge the current legal landscape, to lead conversations surrounding social justice, and, most importantly, in the same way our support system did, we need to show up for the people who need us.”
Felipe Durini Andrade, who is from Ecuador and worked more than 18 years in private practice before earning his Master of Laws at Northeastern, said, “From now on we must maintain our leadership, transmit our knowledge to others, fulfill our duty to help others, and practice our honorable profession with nobility and honesty.”