Judge Kandis A. Westmore: Find Opportunities To Contribute To The Cause Of Justice

The Honorable Kandis A. Westmore, who serves as a magistrate judge for the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, offered the Graduate and Professional Studies Commencement address on Sunday, May 27, 2018. Judge Westmore advised candidates for diplomas at the GPS ceremony to promote justice in their personal and professional lives.

The Honorable Kandis A. Westmore, U.S. Magistrate Judge and 2018 Graduate and Professional Studies Commencement Speaker.President Donahue, distinguished faculty, Brothers, gathered family members and friends, and most importantly graduates! It's a beautiful morning and I'm just truly honored and humbled that President Donahue invited me to address you today. I bring you greetings and congratulations from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

To the parents, spouses, children, friends and loved ones gathered here today, you have earned the right to share this great accomplishment with the students that we are here to honor, because we know how important your love, support and sometimes sacrifice has been to these graduates, who are poised to begin their new professional journeys.

After I accepted the invitation to speak today, I ask myself what could I say that would be short and sweet enough that you would hear me through all the excitement around you and the anticipation of getting the celebrations started? What could I possibly tell you that might be worth remembering? More importantly, what was important to me to tell all of you? Sitting in my graduation ceremony ready to receive my law degree 21 years ago, I had no idea where it was going to lead me. I had no idea what kind of legal career I was going to pursue, and I never imagined that one day I would be a federal judge.

Maybe many of you already have it all figured out. You know precisely what you're going to be doing in life and you've known this for quite some time. But for those of you, like me, who didn't, that's perfectly okay. But is it what we do for a living that defines who we are? A mentor of mine once said "Don't get so caught up in being a human doing, that you forget that it's more important to focus on yourself as a human being." So who will you be in the course of what you do for a living?

You are the smartest people at Saint Mary's today! You have completed many years of school and you've earned postgraduate degrees, and you've come so far, and now you're ready for your next journey. What will that journey look like? Each one of you is special and has something unique to bring to whatever profession you choose. What motivates you? Most people pursue higher education because they want to make a difference. They want to support their families, or maybe they just want to earn more money, or all of the above. 

My first job as an attorney was with a small civil rights firm. I was there for only a few months, and then I was hired as a deputy city attorney for the city of Oakland in the advisory division. That position was like an in-house counsel job where I didn't have to engage in general litigation or jury trials. I stayed behind the scenes, for the most part, advising city departments regarding policy and legislation and writing legal opinions. I believed that position was perfect for me, and all of my self-perceived limitations.

I had found my comfort zone - out of the limelight. But somehow, despite my best efforts to stay under the radar, my cases started to become high profile and I found myself mortified to have to talk to news reporters and give TV interviews. Apparently, it was not my destiny to remain under the radar! Two years later I was transferred to the litigation division, against my will. I was horrified! That was not a part of my plan; I didn't want to be a trial lawyer. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone. I didn't know why, maybe it was just fear. But I'm so glad that my boss at that time saw through those fears and knew what I was capable of. I ended up litigating and tried cases filed against the city of Oakland in state and federal trial and appellate courts. Without that valuable experience, I probably would not be a judge today.

You might not have your career path all figured out. That's okay. Sometimes your path will be laid out for you as you go. So don't be afraid if you don't know what your path will be. Just have faith that you didn't come this far to stop now and that God has a plan for your life. Don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone to take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, even if it's not something you ever envisioned for yourself. You never know what might be your path to success.

And after all these years, what I've learned is that success comes from doing excellent work and by applying your unique gifts to your work in a way that not only serves you, but serves others, whenever possible. And while we might all be suited for different professions, I have concluded that we all share a common purpose — to be good. I know that sounds very simple, but what does it mean to be good? According to the Book of Micah, God has shown us what is good; that we are required only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. What does this mean for us as professionals?

This reminds me of a time before I graduated from law school while watching my seven-year-old son Justin taking karate lessons. All of the boy and girl students were standing around wearing their gis, those are their martial arts uniforms, with their white belts tied around their waists. Suddenly a powerful voice rang throughout the room. "Recite the black belt principles!" And all at once, the students shouted in unison, “Modesty, courtesy, integrity, self-control, perseverance and indomitable spirit!”  I knew then that my son was in the right place. This alone was worth the sacrifice for the tuition. This is the way they started every class without fail. And this is the way we should start our professional journeys.

Even the California Supreme Court now requires new attorneys to take an oath to swear to conduct themselves with dignity, courtesy and integrity before they can be admitted to practice law. These black belt principles are so important that they should be implanted into the DNA of all of our professional business and personal doings which reflect us as human beings.

We are at a crossroads of our history as a nation. The survival of this great experiment of a nation of, for, and by the people depends on what kind of people we will choose to be. Our nation has not been perfect but it has made strides towards fulfilling its dream that all people are created equal. We still have a long way to go and cannot afford to return to our unenlightened past.

I was encouraged when I learned that Saint Mary's College mandates that every Graduate and Professional Studies Program student includes some kind of research, or explores an issue in their specific area of academic study that clearly addresses social justice. In the words of the late Attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, "A lawyer (for here, I would say a person), is either a social engineer or a parasite society." Indeed, the most rewarding work I do as a judge is volunteer my time to the court's first conviction Alternatives Program, a problem solving court. It provides people, charged with crimes, with an opportunity to avoid convictions or have reduced charges if they successfully address the problems that led them to commit the crimes in the first place.

I love this work, and I love it because I believe that supporting the efforts of those who come before the court to rise above their past circumstances, instead of perpetuating the revolving door to prison, will lead to a better, safer, more just world for us all. And I pray that you too will find opportunities in your professions to contribute to the cause of justice. Whether we evolve or devolve depends on our new leaders, our new psychologists, accountants, managers, teachers, counselors, social workers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, journalists, artists, and business leaders of tomorrow.

It all depends on you graduates who are taking the next steps on your journey from students to professionals who will make public policy, define best business practices, healthy workplaces, law enforcement, health care, education and finance and much more. Your work will touch all aspects of our communities, and you will set the tone for the next generation. This is your time! This is your day! This is your moment!

In her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," Maya Angelou said, "Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need for this bright morning dawning for you. History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

When you leave this place and start your next journey, no one will stand in front of you and shout 'recite the black belt principles!' But I'm asking you to remember this day and reflect on the principles and commit to quietly reciting in your mind: modesty, courtesy, integrity, self-control, perseverance, and indomitable spirit. And being so guided, I have no doubt that you will be reminded of who you are and who you worked so hard all these years to be. Rest assured you will bring honor to your professions and make Saint Mary's College proud.

I leave you with this word of advice from Maya Angelou. "Lift up your eyes upon this day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream." Congratulations! And God bless you all.