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June 28 , 2006


Commencement Convocation Speaker: Fidelity to U.S. Constitution Does Not Require Isolationism

photo of Judith Resnik
Download a copy of the 2006 Commencement Convocation Address by Judith Resnik '72 as a PDF

A June 11 New York Times story about commencement addresses opened with a wry nod to Judith Resnik '72, who delivered remarks at Bryn Mawr's Commencement Convocation this May: "Judith Resnik, a legal scholar, could win the exhaustive-preparation prize. For her speech at Bryn Mawr, Dr. Resnik reviewed over 100 years of commencement addresses," The Times reported.

In her speech, titled "Borders, Law and Doors — Opening" Resnik, the Arthur Liman Professor of Law at Yale Law School, offered the Class of 2006 a brief look at American social history through Bryn Mawr commencement addresses. With special attention to issues of gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion and race, she cited remarks by U.S. Senator George Hoar (1898), President William Howard Taft (1910), pioneering social activist Jane Addams (1912), Mount Holyoke President Mary Woolley (1916), Chinese Ambassador Hu Shih (1940), and the Rev. Martin Luther King (1966), among others.

"I turned to these speeches as precedent," Resnik said. Concluding that "these talks gave me utter license to talk about whatever I wanted," she used her moment at the podium to address "America's relationship, under our own Constitution, to international lawmaking."

Resnik examined contemporary attitudes toward "the foreign" through the lens of politics and law. Citing a proposed federal statute that would bar American judges from taking any non-U.S. law into consideration in their rulings, she said, "The hostility to the 'foreign' is startlingly intense at the moment." She noted, however, that such hostility has surfaced repeatedly in American political life: "Indeed, every great human rights effort in the last three hundred years has been met, states-side, with protests couched in the language of jurisdiction — arguing the importance of American borders and objecting to 'outsiders' trying to change American law."

Resnik characterized the sharp distinction between foreign and domestic as "misguided."

"Import and export are the activities that lace our legal history. Sometimes, with our permeable borders and migrating principles, come radical innovations bringing new and moving understandings of human dignity and equality," she argued. International movements have had a profound effect on the law of the United States and interpretation of its constitution, she said, as U.S. law has had a profound effect on liberal democracies throughout the world.

We can point to many of our historical exports with pride, Resnik said. "An easy example of export is the United States Constitution, which has been a model for drafters of constitutions around the world and which served as a major influence on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights … But more recently," she continued,

"America has come to be identified with a very different kind of legal export, one that is not to be celebrated but decried. Here the painful example is the US position that torture is, in some times, against some people, and in some places, neither absolutely prohibited under current law nor redressible … over the second half of the twentieth century, it has been America that proudly led the way with a ban on coercive extraction of information; that is why movies and television all over the world show police giving "Miranda warnings" — named after a Supreme Court decision in the 1960s holding that detainees have rights to counsel and to be silent in order to protect them from police abuses ..

"…Yet ... detainees in Guantanamo have been held, in custody, incommunicado, and without access to lawyers and family, for a lot more than 27 hours. Hundreds of individuals have been at that naval base for years, kept by our government, which has argued in our courts that, because these individuals are not on United States soil and are alleged not to be United States citizens, the Constitution does not regulate how Americans— how we — treat them."

Quoting a statement recently made by a U.S. official to a U.N. committee in Geneva, Resnik noted that "it is the official position of the government that it will voluntarily comply with prohibitions on torture (again with the caveat of an argument about what constitutes torture) but does so in some instances on a voluntary basis — that there are law-free zones in which the government is not required to comply... Such arguments should be understood as antithetical to, rather than plausible within, the fabric of American law."

After a call for a return to constitutional principles, Resnik concluded with a meditation on a few of "the gifts Bryn Mawr gave me": an appreciation for intellectual diversity; an understanding of the "vital link between work and companionship;" an introduction to her favorite poet, William Butler Yeats; and awareness of "the possibilities that do open up, when women are taken seriously."

Download a copy of the 2006 Commencement Convocation Address by Judith Resnik '72 as a PDF

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