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Commitment to Integrity 

Incoming Students Vow a Commitment to Integrity

By John Masson
Aug. 31, 2012

United States District Judge Robert Jonker, a 1985 Michigan Law grad, is used to administering oaths to large groups of people. He conducts citizenship ceremonies in his home base of Grand Rapids, Mich., all the time.

But when an auditorium full of incoming first-year law students at his alma mater rose to their feet in unison in Honigman Auditorium this morning, Jonker must have been proud to know that he was helping them make a different, very important kind of pledge.

The Commitment to Integrity ceremony has been a part of Michigan Law's orientation for new students since 2009. In part using the words of Michigan Law benefactor William W. Cook, whose bequest built the Law Quad, the pledge reminds students that the future of the country is, in many ways, tied to the integrity of the legal profession.

To reinforce the point, each student at the ceremony received a hardback copy of the United States Constitution, thanks to the generosity of 1959 graduate John Butler Schwemm.

Jonker used the Watergate era as an example of what can happen when integrity slips. Jonker came of age during that era, he said, and had to watch a parade of lawyers shuffle off into disgrace—led by the President of the United States.

"And that was just the beginning of an unraveling of public trust in lawyers—and in public institutions," Jonker said.

Today's lawyers can help turn that public impression around by holding themselves to the highest standards of conduct, Jonker said.

As someone with perhaps more reason than most to reflect on human frailty, Jonker told the assembled students that he's sentenced about 500 people during his career as a federal judge.

"And I can count on one hand the people I didn't like," when he did it, he said. "They broke the law, I don't have any doubt about that," and they deserved to be punished.

But that still left the question: what makes some people go astray?

"I often wonder to myself," he said. Without the right guidance from parents, mentors, and teachers, "would I be the person in the robe, doing the sentencing—or would I be in the orange jumpsuit?" The contemplation reminded him of something another Michigan Law graduate, District Judge John Feikens, once said.

"The day sentencing became easy for him was the day he would quit being a judge."

One of the most important things to remember about lawyering, he added, was that at its essence what lawyers do is a matter of "bringing people in conflict to common ground."

Trust is a key element to brokering that kind of resolution. And integrity makes trust possible.

Jonker finished up by paraphrasing another native of western Michigan, President Gerald R. Ford, who said in the wake of Nixon's resignation that "truth is the glue that holds civilization together."

The same could be said, Jonker said, of integrity.

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