Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Justice Susanne Baer, LLM ’93, of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, headlined the first President’s Bicentennial Colloquium, “The Future University Community,” during a January visit to campus. Former NPR host Michele Norris moderated the justices’ conversation.
Universities like Michigan provide the perfect opportunity to hear different voices and build bridges, said the justices. Justice Sotomayor said that her initial shyness as an undergraduate at Princeton University—a very different environment from her upbringing as the child of Puerto Rican migrants—laid the foundation for her life and career, and her current work on the Court. “The trauma of putting yourself in situations where you’re not comfortable is how you learn your strengths and weaknesses.”
For Justice Baer, fear, not shyness, provided an initial barrier during her year as a Michigan Law student. “By nature of having a last name near the front of the alphabet, I was going to be the first one called on,” she said. “I was terrified. I also wrestled with telling these superstar classmates that I am a lesbian.” Justice Baer, who also is a William W. Cook Global Law Professor at Michigan, said she realized the Law School is a safe place where she could build a community around her identity. She encouraged the audience to do the same. “Don’t run through the back door. Run forward. You will find people to go with you.”
Justices Baer and Sotomayor also stressed their dual role as citizens and said everyone has an obligation to engage with their democracy. Justice Baer carries a copy of the German constitution in her pocket, “as a reminder of my obligation as a judge and the common ground we all start from. The law is not mine as a judge; it’s ours as citizens.” Justice Sotomayor added, “While you don’t all have to be lawyers, I ask that you all be informed citizens. You can’t improve the world unless you understand how it functions.”
As part of their visit, the justices also taught a class at the Law School, which brought together students from Professor Martha Jones’s Critical Race Theory class and students who previously had taken Professor Daniel Halberstam’s European Union Law and Global Constitutionalism classes. “Our community is constructed through a commitment to the public good,” said Jones, who, as a Presidential Bicentennial Professor, led the effort to bring the justices to Ann Arbor. For five years, she also directed Michigan Law’s Program in Race, Law & History. “Justices Baer and Sotomayor have dockets that address issues at the core of our mission to be a diverse, inclusive institution, and it was an incredible honor to have them speak so intimately with our law students.”
Their high level of engagement also impressed the students, said 3L Erin Collins, who is pursuing a dual degree in law and Middle Eastern and North African studies. “I appreciated their candor with each other and their genuine interest in sharing not only their experiences, but in interacting with students. One of my biggest takeaways was when the two justices spoke about the importance of diversity of opinions on the Court and how that diversity is seen through their decisions. Both clearly use their respective judicial systems to try and push their courts into new and more inclusive directions.” —AS