Nov. 4, 2005
By Ken Kleppel
“Some would say the problems are too big and too complex for one person to impact. I believe those people are wrong. You don’t need to be a Supreme Court Justice or even a football hero to make change happen. Everyone here, and I emphasize everyone, has the ability, the opportunity, and I believe the obligation to make this world a better place.”
–Justice Alan Page, Notre Dame Commencement Address, May 16, 2004
“As lawyers and judges, we must remember one essential fact: At the heart of every case is a human being — a person for whom this particular case means everything.”
–Chief Justice Robert Thomas, First Remarks as Chief Justice, September 7, 2005
May I please the Court?
Ladies and gentlemen of the Notre Dame community, I thank you for allowing me to share my time with you this afternoon, but I can assure you that your work here represents the most important of civic duties. I now have the opportunity to present to you an opening statement, which is a preview of what the evidence will show during this hearing.
Over the course of the next several minutes you will begin to hear the story of two distinguished Notre Dame individuals — Justice Alan Page of the Minnesota Supreme Court and Chief Justice Robert Thomas of the Illinois Supreme Court.
The similarities appear remarkable. Both share the same birth date (August 7), instrumental roles as seniors on national championship teams (1966 and 1973), and professional football career paths which crossed for four seasons in Chicago (1978 through 1981).
A three-year starter at defensive end for Notre Dame, Alan Page was a consensus All-American in 1966 for the Irish. He went on to play 15 seasons in the NFL with Minnesota and Chicago, playing in four Super Bowls.
But I implore you to look beyond these mere coincidences.
The differences seem overwhelming. Both maintain different political affiliations (democrat and republican), skin color (black and white), and reputations as football standouts (the most feared member of the Purple People Eaters and a kicker whose only contact came with his right leg, the football, and the netting behind the goal posts).
I ask you again to ignore these superficial discrepancies.
Rather, this case is about the meaning of a vocation. The evidence will show that the careers of Justice Page and Justice Thomas exemplify this notion and convey a life-time example for all to follow.
Opposing counsel will have you think otherwise. “But for football, where would these men be?” “Is there a place for faith in public life?” “Can one person make a difference?” Each is a valid question to be raised at trial, but each can be answered.
And it is in response to these questions that the case for each Justice begins to unfold at Notre Dame and, perhaps ironically, with former head coach Ara Parseghian, who is more associated with a locker room than a courtroom but whose impact looms large nonetheless.
Then a freshman from Canton, Ohio, and still following the footsteps of an older brother, Page learned from Parseghian a philosophy on life before Page defended one snap on the college gridiron.
At a team meeting in the spring of 1964, Parseghian spoke of football as a game defined solely by field position and possession. Page understood the message for its profound symbolism.
“It was one of those eye-opening moments where I learned there was a theory and philosophy to football,” says Page. “What Ara was really saying is that if you do all the things that are necessary to maintain field position and possession, such as avoiding penalties and mistakes, you will be successful. In the practice of law and in relationships with others, if we understand the big picture and take care of little things, we stand a good chance of being successful.”
Page would ultimately make a career of helping others stand a good chance of being successful in their own right. An explanation of the way in which he does this is best coupled with an understanding of the journey of Justice Thomas.
Then a senior reeling from a slow start to his final collegiate season, Thomas learned from Parseghian a lesson in the importance of confidence.
“Right before the USC game Ara walked off the practice field with me and told me that he didn’t need me in the other games, but that he would need me on Saturday,” says Thomas. “I had three field goals that day and we won by nine points.”
No kick, however, was bigger than his nineteen-yard field goal in the closing moments of the 1973 Sugar Bowl to deliver a national championship with a 24-23 victory against Alabama.
Yet, Thomas’ impact extends far beyond the ball that made its way over the crossbar and inside the right upright on that memorable New Years Eve in New Orleans.
Thomas experienced a twelve-year professional football career, in which he played ten seasons with the Chicago Bears and still ranks as team record-holder for field goals and points scored by a kicker. While playing professional football, he earned his Juris Doctor from Loyola University School of Law in 1981.
After seven years of practice in civil litigation, Thomas was elected to the state circuit court in 1988 and to the state appellate court six years later. Thomas earned a seat on Illinois’ highest court with election to the Supreme Court in 2000. He was sworn in as Chief Justice this past September.
“When I thought about being a judge someone asked me how I would handle lawyers in the courtroom,” says Thomas. “Being booed by eighty thousand people as a player I replied that I didn’t know why anyone should worry.”
Thomas has yet to be booed in the courtroom, although he admits that some counsel have come dangerously close.
It is just a coincidence, however, that in his first remarks as Chief Justice, Thomas spoke of the need for collegiality and professional civility in the legal profession — a primary goal since his first days on the Court. Within the past two months, the Illinois Supreme Court approved new rules designed to improve the quality of legal services and promote civility among lawyers. The initiatives require the establishment of a permanent Commission on Professionalism.
As important as civility is to Thomas in the profession, he quotes scripture in that same speech, speaking of his faith, acting justly, and walking humbly.
Bob Thomas’ 19-yard field goal in the closing moments of the 1973 Sugar Bowl gave Notre Dame a 24-23 win over Alabama and a national championship. He went on to play 12 years in the NFL, including 10 with the Chicago Bears.
“My faith is very important to me,” says Thomas. “I have been blessed with two great careers. Knowing that self-esteem is not based on what you do but rather that you are a child of God becomes the most important factor in my personal life.”
While faith in part drives Thomas personally and professionally, a similar conviction inspires Page.
Page sparked the Irish to their first national championship in seventeen seasons as a consensus All-American in 1966. A first-round selection of the Minnesota Vikings, Page’s professional football career spanned fifteen seasons and four Super Bowls. He earned four conference defensive player-of-the-year honors and became the first defensive player in league history to win the league’s most valuable player award. Page was inducted into both the professional and college football halls of fame.
Receiving a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota in 1978, Page began private practice in Minnesota a year later. He became an assistant attorney general for Minnesota in 1987, where he concentrated on employment litigation. Page was elected to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1992, and was re-elected in 1998 and again in 2004.
“Both my Notre Dame background and my professional football background have provided the opportunity for me to get heard in the first instance,” says Page. “After that you have to have something worth talking about so people will listen.”
His message speaks volumes for the cause of educating the less fortunate.
From the steps of the Hall of Fame at his induction speech in Canton in 1988, Page started the Page Education Foundation to provide educational grants to students of color to attend college in Minnesota. Today, the Foundation has awarded nearly five million dollars of aid to over two thousand students. Page’s journey came full circle when he delivered the commencement address at the 2004 Notre Dame Commencement ceremonies with Page scholar, Andrea Manka, graduating from the University that same day.
“Each of us in our own small way can make big changes,” says Page. “Whether it is related to issues of character or beginning to solve what seems to be the problem with respect to race, we have the ability to bring about change through our efforts. We can take responsibility for what we do and say, and can look inward to see what our role is and how we can change what we do.”
The jurisprudence of Justice Page and Justice Thomas will reflect integrity and just application of law to facts.
Their voices will echo social change and faith.
Their actions will demonstrate character and conviction.
The evidence will show that every person has the obligation to make the world a better place and at the heart of every case is a human being. This verdict should be on the side of vocations.
Editor’s Note: Ken Kleppel is a 2004 graduate of the Notre Dame Law School. He is an attorney with the law firm of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, LLP in Cleveland, Ohio.