Justices Sotomayor and Baer stress importance of diverse communities

By Amy Spooner
U-M Law

Amid the debate concerning the constitutionality of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, two leading constitutional scholars spoke at the University of Michigan on January 30 about the importance of fostering diverse communities.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Supreme Court and Justice Susanne Baer of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, headlined the first President’s Bicentennial Colloquium, “The Future University Community.” Sotomayor also received an honorary doctor of laws degree at the event. (Baer, who holds an LLM degree from Michigan Law, received an honorary doctorate from the University in 2014 and is a William W. Cook Global Law Professor at Michigan.) The justices’ conversation was moderated by former NPR host Michele Norris.

As the national dialogue remains tense, both justices stressed hearing and respecting all viewpoints. Sotomayor noted that many people are surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court justices—who have been divided deeply on many rulings—maintain personal friendships. “I know my colleagues are as passionate about the issues that we discuss as I am,” she said. “We all love our country and Constitution, and revere our system of government. It’s easier to listen openly if you start from that place of respect.”

The same holds true on the German high court, said Baer. “We must find common ground in a judgment that we all can sign. Be forceful in your argument, but respect the other as a legitimate voice—even when it seems that voice comes from another planet.”

Universities like Michigan provide the perfect opportunity to hear different voices and build bridges, said the justices. Norris questioned Sotomayor about her shyness as a freshman at Princeton University—shyness born of her outsider status as a woman, a minority, and a student without generations of ties to the Ivy League. Sotomayor said that trying to fit in at a place that was so different 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,” she said. “You have an opportunity at the University of Michigan to experience things that are different from what you know, and if you embrace that, you will get the very best out of your education.”

For Baer, fear, not shyness, provided an initial barrier during her year as a Michigan Law student, as she left the familiarity of her home and schooling in Germany to attend a rigorous law program in a foreign country. “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 wasn’t yet out as a homosexual, so on top of everything else, I wrestled with telling these superstar classmates that I was a lesbian.” Baer found the Law School to be a safe place where she could build a community around her identity, and she encouraged the audience to do the same. “Don’t run through the back door. Run forward. You are never alone; you will find people to walk with you.”

While bridge-building starts with individuals, both justices noted that systemic action is needed to ensure opportunities for connection exist. “I chose to be a student at Michigan because of its commitment to the world,” Baer said. “Communities like Michigan must stay open to people from all over the world, not just the segment whose race, nationality, and religion is closest to ours. Our ability to navigate the future of our world depends on access to diverse ideas.”

Sotomayor added that such access is needed at the university level so that the judiciary can better reflect the diversity of the people it serves. “The need to build a diverse pipeline of judges is not on law schools, it’s on us,” she said, referencing those already on the bench. “We have a responsibility to mentor people from different backgrounds.”

Baer and Sotomayor also stressed their dual role as citizens, and encouraged the audience to actively engage with their democracy. Justice Baer said she 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.”

Sotomayor urged the audience to read the U.S. Constitution with an eye to what’s not there. “See what’s missing, and think about what that means. Laws affect you every day. We are only able to all gather today because of the Brown [v. Board of Education] decision. So 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, Baer and Sotomayor 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. She also directs 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.”

The justices’ high level of engagement impressed the students, said Erin Collins, a dual-degree student in law and Middle Eastern and North African studies. “I appreciated their candor when interacting 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 a 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 the courts into new and more inclusive directions.”

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