Remembering Beau Biden L’94
Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III, a 1994 graduate of the College of Law and the former attorney general of Delaware, died on Saturday at the age of 46. Biden, an Iraq War veteran, was the son of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a 1968 graduate of the College of Law.
The younger Biden delivered the following address, “The Means Matter,” at the College of Law Commencement on May 13, 2011.
“Thank you. Good afternoon. It is so good to be back at Syracuse. It is truly an honor.
Syracuse University, this law school, is a uniquely meaningful place for my family and me. Our roots here run deep. My father, mother, uncles and I have all been Syracuse students, but this school is more than our alma mater—it’s part of our foundation.
I am profoundly grateful for this opportunity to address you from this podium. I sat in your seat, not too long ago. At least, it doesn’t feel so long. Perhaps for some of my professors it hasn’t been long enough.
Because I’m not so far away from the day I graduated from Syracuse, I won’t pretend to offer you the wisdom that a lifetime of experience can provide.
I would like, however, to offer you an observation about being a lawyer: Something I’ve experienced as a military lawyer and as an attorney general.
I believe the practice of law is one of the most honorable professions in our society. Not only in how we interact with our colleagues, but also in how our actions affect our clients, our families, our communities and even our adversaries.
The honorable path is not without challenges. In the 17 years since I graduated from this great College of Law, I have seen that, for many of us, it becomes increasingly easy to rationalize our actions in the name of expediency when facing difficult decisions—to choose a path where the ends justify the means. I want to ask you to challenge Machiavelli’s philosophy.
I want to humbly suggest that you be the guardians of a more complicated truth: that the means are as important—and sometimes even more important—than the ends.
I’ve learned a lot about how important the means are as a lawyer, but nowhere more than during my nine years as a military lawyer. I’ve been trained, and then instructed soldiers heading into battle, that in war the standards are and must be clear. That it is the means of our conduct that matters.
There is no better illustration of this truth than the discussion and debate over the use of enhanced interrogations techniques.
Nearly ten years ago, an assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice wrote a now famous memo that defended his client’s desire to use ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ as the means to achieve an end that was indisputably important.
At same time, military lawyers (jags)—those that who not only know our interrogators but also know the American troops who could one day be interrogated by the enemy—disagreed with their client’s desired means and wrote a strong repudiation of these techniques.
Together, these two legal opinions, from very smart and patriotic lawyers, form an excellent lesson: it is exactly when the stakes are the highest that the means matter most.
Or, as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, himself a military lawyer said at the time, ‘That there are certain corners you cannot afford to cut because you will wind up meeting yourself.’
The question of ends versus means is presented all the time in the practice of law. When the world thinks of lawyers, not everyone thinks of Atticus Finch, but they should. We want counselors who fight for what’s ‘right,’ but we live in a culture where lawyers too often fight for what the client demands, and the more powerful the client the more compelling the demand. Our ability to rationalize cannot be underestimated.
As Senator Graham, and the military lawyers know, if the rules are not clear, a slope has been oiled. And when slopes are oiled, you can only ride them in one direction. Do not rationalize.
The decisions you’ll make as lawyers may not determine whether someone lives or dies, but they will have an impact that reaches farther than you may realize. Just because it looks like your views are not reinforced by a majority of your peers, or even your clients, don’t change your views.
Just because you think the path that’s right for you might be lonelier, longer or less destined for traditional success than paths taken by others, don’t be afraid to take it. If you choose your means well you will end up in the right place.
A lot has been written on the subject of whether the end justifies the means. Consider this quote, from Justice Brandeis’ famous dissent in the Olmstead case, in which he said:
‘To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means—to declare that the government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal—would bring terrible retribution.’
Justice Brandeis said that in 1928, another time in our history when America was poised on the edge of seismic shifts in culture, politics and international standing.
What Justice Brandeis said is as applicable to individuals as it is to governments. You will be lawyers in your profession—but now, knowing what you know, you will also be leaders in your communities and among your friends and families.
In those more private—yet equally challenging—‘courtrooms,’ you will face similar cycles of testing and re-testing. And you will find peace when there are certain rules that are not malleable. Your conscience, for one. Your conscience should not be malleable. Your values, for another.
These are your ‘means.’ Along with the learning you now possess, these are the things that will guide you.
When you betray your values, you—to take Brandeis’s words—‘breed contempt for’ values everywhere.
Today, this week—in the still-short wake of an historical act of heroism and closure for Americans—it is an appropriate time to reflect on the importance of means. When something seems easy, it is time to question our assumptions, and to challenge ourselves.
We must strive to recognize that moral codes matter. That we are interdependent. That the means of our conduct must be driven by our conscience, our values, our knowledge and, above all, by our laws. And that our conduct cannot not be blinded by even the most laudable ends.
Winston Churchill once said that ‘The price of greatness is responsibility.’ That is as true for our military as it is for our lawyers.
You leave Syracuse today with a powerful body of knowledge and skills, but also with a responsibility. A responsibility that is desperately needed…at a time of historic challenges for our nation…with the opportunity to make your community, our nation and this world a better place.
Thank you. God bless America and God bless our troops.”