COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Defending justice is "the calling of our time," and young people should consider careers in public service, Attorney General John Ashcroft told Missouri law graduates on Saturday.
"Justice has enemies in the world. Her defense is more than an intellectual exercise or an academic pursuit. The defense of justice, liberty and tolerance is the calling of our time," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft's 20-minute commencement speech at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law marked a rare home-state public appearance for the former U.S. senator, two-term governor and state attorney general.
He praised the Missouri law school for sponsoring one of the nation's leading educational programs about alternative dispute resolution -- working out problems without going to court.
He said alternative dispute resolution aims for mediation instead of litigation.
"Our system of justice balances contention with consensus because, in the marketplace of justice, a sheer monopoly on litigation ... might tend to alienate the people from the law -- and distances the legal profession from those it serves," said Ashcroft, a former college business law teacher, who wore a black academic robe as he spoke.
"Disputes are inevitable," Ashcroft said of alternative methods of resolving disputes, "but litigation is not."
Ashcroft made just one reference to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, saying alternative dispute resolution, through the use of a special master to make decisions, has helped ease claims on victim compensation funds.
The attorney general said the law graduates should work to make justice "available and accessible to all."
Outside the Jesse Hall auditorium where Ashcroft spoke, demonstrators opposed to the Bush administration carried signs.
They were met by flag-waving supporters of Ashcroft, organized by a Columbia businessman who said he didn't want national TV viewers to get the idea that residents were unpatriotic.
Ashcroft shook hands with about 170 law graduates after they received their hoods signifying completion of studies. The graduates included Rebecca Lambe, a top aide to Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan, who succeeded Ashcroft by appointment.
Ashcroft was locked in a competitive re-election battle two years ago when his Democratic opponent, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a campaign plane crash less than three weeks before Election Day. Mel Carnahan posthumously won the Senate seat, the first deceased person ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
Ashcroft was appointed attorney general a few weeks later by President Bush. Mel Carnahan's widow, Jean, was appointed to fill the term won by her husband. She is seeking re-election this fall to complete the six-year term.
The commencement offered a platform for a member of the university's governing Board of Curators to bemoan state funding cuts that have carved into higher education funding. The Columbia campus, for example, has ben told it must reduce spending by some $41 million during the next seven weeks leading to the end of the state budget year.
Curator Sean McGinnis, an attorney from Springfield, told the graduates that the University of Missouri is one unifying factor in a diverse state.
"Right now, the University of Missouri is in a crisis situation, a situation created by an economic downtown beyond our control but compounded by state leaders who do not presently seem to recognize the importance of public higher education," McGinnis said.
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