Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to Speak at St. John’s Law Commencement

2019 St. John's Law Commencement Speaker Jeh Johnson
May 13, 2019

Jeh Charles Johnson, the former United States Secretary of Homeland Security, will be the Law School’s commencement speaker and will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws on Sunday, June 2, 2019. The commencement exercises will take place at Carnesecca Arena on St. John’s Queens campus.

“We’re honored that Secretary Johnson has agreed to address our graduates and their families at this year’s commencement exercises,” Dean Michael A. Simons says. “He offers a unique perspective on forging a meaningful and rewarding legal career that’s rooted in his impressive public service during three Senate-confirmed presidential appointments and four years in President Obama’s cabinet. He is also a talented and respected litigator who made history in 1994 when he was elected the first African American partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, the preeminent international law firm where he works today. Jeh Johnson’s great-grandfather was born into slavery; his grandfather was a pioneering academic and influential Black intellectual. In his public service, Secretary Johnson continues to honor their legacy.”

Following an early career in private practice at Paul Weiss, Johnson went into public service as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York. He then returned to private practice until President Clinton called on him to serve as General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force. Johnson was again in private practice when President Obama appointed him General Counsel of the Department of Defense. In that position, among other notable achievements, Johnson was the legal architect for the U.S. military’s counterterrorism efforts and co-authored the report that paved the way for the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the official U.S. policy on military service by gays, bisexuals, and lesbians.

Johnson took another hiatus from private practice a few years later, when President Obama tapped him to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the third largest cabinet department of the U.S. government with 230,000 personnel and 22 components, including TSA, Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and FEMA. During his four-year tenure there as Secretary, Johnson helped to identify and address diverse threats to national security and coordinated responses to natural disasters, among other responsibilities. He also instituted significant management reforms that centralized decision-making and raised employee morale across DHS. 

In his book, Duty, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote: "[Johnson] proved to be the finest lawyer I ever worked with in government—a straightforward, plain-speaking man of great integrity, with common sense to burn and a good sense of humor." The larger legal community shares that high regard. Johnson is a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the recipient of nine honorary degrees as well as the Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award.

He also continues to contribute to the broader legal, political, and business discourse in a number of ways. He is on the board of directors of Lockheed Martin and the Center for a New American Security, and is a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Since leaving public office in January 2017, Johnson has testified before Congress three times. He has debated at both the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, and is a frequent commentator on national and homeland security for major news outlets.

Can't make it to campus on Sunday, June 2, 2019? Watch Jeh Johnson's address and the 2019 Law School Commencement Exercises in their entirety via live stream starting at noon.