June 01, 2020

Dear Columbus School of Law Community,

We mourn the death of Mr. George Floyd under the knee of a Minnesota police officer.  Our hearts are broken by this incident and go out, with our prayers, out-loud words of support, and -- one hopes -- better actions, to all of those feeling the pain of Mr. Floyd's senseless death. 

Although it does not take any special credentials, as a former prosecutor, I think the video evidence of excessive force looks overwhelming: another person of color has died as a result of mistreatment by a representative of an institution that is supposed to represent us all, that is supposed to keep us all safe.  No wonder many people of color are telling me they fear for the safety of their friends and families and do not know what to tell their children about feeling unwelcome and afraid in our society.  

Even more unfortunately, this is not something new.  Repeated incidents of this kind have given the many good law enforcement officers and prosecutors out there a bad name for being associated with institutions that cannot seem to adequately address these terrible problems.  No wonder so many people are frustrated and taking to the streets in protest.  Peaceful protest is a legitimate and unfortunately necessary part of our tradition as a civil society.  I hope you will agree that hurting or threatening to hurt other people or taking or destroying property is not the answer.  We have seen that those actions are counterproductive and may eclipse the overall message of the protest.

If there is any way forward -- and, admittedly, sometimes it is difficult to see one -- it seems to me that it is to be found in actions and words and laws and policies and institutional transformations and individual, personal changes that recognize our common humanity and appreciate the value of our differences.  That is where our Catholic tradition leads us: all people are created in the image of God, and all therefore are of infinite dignity -- no matter what color, but also, and important for criminal justice, no matter what they may have done or not done.  Racism denies that fundamental human dignity, in criminal justice and everywhere else, and, as one cannot ignore, ultimately can lead to the loss of life.  In addition to the other obvious reasons for doing so, for us it might also be worth remembering that if we aim to be pro-life, we must stand up against racism in our criminal justice system. 

Toward recognizing human dignity and protecting life and eradicating racism and establishing equal justice is where the principles of our American legal tradition should lead us as well, and it is up to us to work toward making it a reality.

We have a fine tradition at Catholic Law of sending our graduates into public service, including many alums of color.  I am proud of what they do for our country in all manner of fields, including both criminal defense and prosecution.  We also have leading scholars working on Criminal Justice Reform as well as Victims' Rights.  We need to involve all members of our community in a discussion of these issues and in the kind of educational programming, events, discussions, training, mentoring, and client representation that we do so well and that can make a difference over time.  

I am confident that we will continue to produce lawyers who will strive to see their neighbor, to whom they owe the duty of love, in their clients, in the victims of crimes, in the perpetrators of crimes, in the suspected and accused and imprisoned, and even in their own adversaries.  We are busy planning to enhance the training and programs we provide to help in this regard and will update you on those plans over the summer.

In the meantime, I just wanted to let you know that Catholic Law stands with you in solidarity for love and justice.  I have been inspired by the many messages I have received from all corners of our community, and especially by how much the members of our community would like to find some way to express support for our students, staff and faculty members, and alums of color who are especially feeling the pain of the current environment.  I hope this message in a small way can signify that support as we continue our journey together.  I hope you all stay healthy and safe.


Stephen C. Payne
Dean, Columbus School of Law
Knights of Columbus Professor of Law
The Catholic University of America