BY: | DATE: May 15, 2023
Chris Alexander ’19 delivers the 2023 Commencement Address

Chris Alexander ’19 delivers the 2023 Commencement Address

On Friday, May 12, the City University of New York School of Law’s Commencement ceremony conferred Juris Doctors to 207 graduates, 24 of whom make up the largest cohort of Pipeline to Justice graduates in a single year.

The Commencement Address was delivered by CUNY Law alumnus Chris Alexander, from the Class of 2019, who has used the law as a tool for social good through government relations and policy work throughout New York State. Alexander was recently appointed as the inaugural Executive Director of the New York State Office of Cannabis Management by Governor Kathy Hochul. He is the architect of the Start SMART NY campaign to end marijuana prohibition and the lead drafter of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, New York’s marijuana legalization bill. A Queens native and son of immigrant parents from Grenada, Alexander reflected on what his CUNY Law degree has enabled him to accomplish in the few short years since his own graduation:

“Not too long ago I was exactly where you are. […] I came here as a young professional already starting to find my voice as an advocate for criminal justice and drug policy reform—an arena where I was most able to use my lived experience and to put my passion for problem-solving to work. […] Since I sat in your seat, I’ve been involved in almost every significant reform in our state’s criminal justice system that has taken place. […] Now, I’m one of the state’s youngest commissioners in history. And I’m charged with launching New York’s cannabis industry in an equitable and just way. What I’m saying to you is that this degree, this moment, is a special one. You should celebrate.”

CUNY Law conferred the Dean’s Medal to the Honorable Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson of the Class of 1988, whose prestigious career includes more than twenty years on the bench of New York’s courts is dedicated to more equitable representation and justice services. As Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Justice Initiatives, Judge Richardson-Mendelson is the executive within the Office of Court Administration primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing problem-solving courts and other initiatives to increase equity for all New Yorkers in civil, criminal, and family courts, regardless of income, background, or disability.

The Ceremony celebrated this year’s class of graduates from both the full-time program and the part-time program, which is often completed over four years as students work full-time or are caretakers in their families. Dean Sudha Setty celebrated their persistence and success, which she noted are a testament to their “incredible grit, determination, and strength.”

“The characteristics that define this graduating class reflect the values we most cherish in our profession: a commitment to providing skilled, thoughtful, ethical, and creative representation to their clients; a commitment to forging alliances and partnering with communities and organizations; and a commitment to each of their clients, but also for the evolution of the rule of law and the justice system. In short, you are deeply committed to changing the world.” She continued, “These values and ethics are emblematic of all of our students—as we are on the cusp of celebrating 40 years of CUNY School of Law, we can even accurately say that generations of students embody these ideals.”

The class of 2023 joins the Law School’s alumni community of nearly 5,000 advocates who overwhelmingly work in social justice and public interest jobs, as CUNY Law leads the nation in these fields. Likewise, the Pipeline to Justice Program, which reflects the Law School’s commitment to recruiting students who will go on to advance representational justice, has advanced the careers of nearly 200 CUNY Law graduates since it was founded 13 years ago.

Members of the Class of 2023 selected two student speakers, Fatima Mohammed and Cory Provost, and named Professor Babe Howell the Outstanding Faculty Member of 2023. All three offered congratulatory remarks and their own individual perspectives on advocating for social justice. Members of the graduating class also chose Jeanette Plaza, who works with the building’s front desk and security teams, to receive the Community Service Award.

Greetings and congratulatory remarks were delivered by Henry T. Berger, Trustee of the City University of New York; Assembly Member Rebecca A. Seawright ’92, Chair of CUNY Law’s Board of Visitors; New York State Senator Michael N. Gianaris; U.S. Senator Charles Ellis “Chuck” Schumer; New York City Mayor Eric L. Adams; and New York State Senator Jamaal T. Bailey ’12.

Senator Bailey and Judge Richardson-Mendelson concluded the ceremony by administering the Lawyer’s Pledge, which focused on the need to uphold the highest values of the legal profession.