Weddington Calls Upon Law Students to Be Public Citizens
When a novice Texas lawyer named Sarah Weddington argued Roe vs. Wade, the landmark abortion rights case, before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 she was 25 and had no trial experience. "They wanted me to take the case -- which I wouldn't have gotten into if I had understood what I was taking on -- because they figured I would do it for nothing," she deadpanned to an eager crowd of law students at this year's Conference on Public Service and the Law. Weddington is the youngest person ever to win a case in the Supreme Court.
"I know I can't solve the problems I have been working on for 30 years and you are the ones who will inherit my issues and many others," said Weddington, who later expressed her deep fear that the 1973 Roe decision could be reversed by a future court. Her visit's aim was to inspire law students to invest their energies in such issues as the death penalty, international political asylum, bioethics research regulation and protecting children, among other current problems examined during the conference.
"I could decide I am disappointed that not everyone in the law school is here now," she began, "but this world is changed by the few. Most people are never involved in anything! Those people who are in the library now are going to read three more property law cases and big deal!" she said to laughter and applause.
"I have three points: First, it's the few and they are most likely you. You will have special training in argument, presentation, writing." Having such skill imposes an obligation to use them, she said.
"Second is be flexible. Your life will be a series of course corrections. The key thing is to learn the skills of leadership. I once heard a speaker say, 'You may have to compromise in time, but never in direction.' My principle is to open the world for people to live their lives the best way they can," Weddington said. "We need flexibility, but never in our principles."
"Third, public service is a treasure to me. It has made me rich in friends and experiences. Harry Truman said leadership is the ability to get people to do what they don't want to do and like it. I think leadership is also a willingness to leave your thumbprint. Law let me leave my thumbprint and there is real satisfaction in that."
"Your issues will come to you, just as mine came to me." At a time when she was supporting her husband she was told by a bank when she applied for a credit card that her application wouldn't be considered without her husband's signature. She was so indignant at the idea that she ran for the Texas legislature so that she could push reforms allowing women to get credit cards independently.
Asked for her reflections on Roe now she said, "What the case says is that the government cannot make the most personal decisions. I can't find any middle ground on the choice issue," she said, adding that she feared a reversal of the abortions rights ruling would lead to limits on other choices as well and a greater repression of personal and social freedoms. "I think pro-lifers should live according to their beliefs," she said. "But their beliefs should not be enforced by law on people who do not believe their way."
Weddington was the keynote speaker at the student-organized annual conference, now in its second year. She was introduced by Mortimer Caplin, (Law '40), namesake of the Law School's Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, who also urged students to make pro bono professional contributions to social needs. This year's conference, which drew nearly 200 participants, was organized by second-year students Kerry Kornblatt and Kit Lasher. Panel discussions covered such topics as the death penalty, international human rights, Title IX, criminal justice, bioethics, the protection of children, gay and lesbian civil rights, and alternative legal careers.