By Katie Vloet
Zdenek Kühn, LLM '02, SJD '06, was writing his dissertation about the judiciary in post-Communist countries, and it was critical of the development of the judicial system in nations where the legal culture for so long had been intellectually separated from the outside world. Even in the democratic era, he wrote, many justices lacked the necessary intellectual heft for the job, wrote Kühn.
Along the way, more than one person made a suggestion to him: If you're so critical of the system—including the nomination process for constitutional justices—why don't you try it?
It wasn't long before he had his chance.
In 2008, Kühn was appointed to serve on one of the top three courts in the Czech Republic, the Supreme Administrative Court. At the time, he was just 35 years old.
Kühn is one of many Michigan Law alumni serving on the highest court in his or her home country, or top courts of organizations such as the UN and the European Union.
The legacy is intertwined with Michigan Law's history as a center of international and comparative law, says Susanne Baer, a justice on the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany. Baer understands the Law School from a variety of perspectives, previously as an LLM student ('93) and currently as a William W. Cook Professor of Law.
"This is the legacy of Eric Stein, in some way," says Baer, referencing the late professor who was an eminent scholar in the field of comparative and international law and the father of legal scholarship on the European Union. "Transnational legal thinking, as both international and comparative work that cares more for solutions to a problem than for the difference among legal systems, which one may call post-nationalist—this is what is needed on the bench, at least in the highest courts today."
In addition to Kühn and Baer, other alumni on high courts include Maria Lourdes P. Sereno, LLM '93, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines; Miriam Defensor Santiago, LLM '75, SJD '76, judge-elect of the International Criminal Court; Peter Van den Bossche, LLM '86, of the WTO Appellate Body; Il-Won Kang, LLM '93, of the Constitutional Court of Korea; and the newly appointed Siniša Rodin, LLM '92, of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg.
They follow the likes of Lilia Bautista, LLM '63, formerly of the WTO Appellate Body; Florenz D. Regalado, LLM '63, and the late Hugo E. Gutierrez, LLM '65, both formerly of the Supreme Court of the Philippines; and Gen Kajitani, MCL '63, formerly of the Supreme Court of Japan.
Others with strong Michigan Law ties also have been judges on high courts—notably Bruno Simma, professor of law at Michigan, who until last year was a judge on the International Court of Justice—as well as former visiting professors such as Andreas Paulus of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany and his fellow jurist Johannes Masing, a former Michigan Law visiting scholar.
Of Michigan Law being a feeder to high courts around the world, Baer offers this insight: "The legal realism I describe as a Michigan style may be very helpful for judges. The comparative tradition is helpful for sure. And the sense of commitment to society," she says.
"In addition to that, we need the ability to critically reconsider what the law tells us, but with a deep sense for justice on the ground," Baer adds. "This Law School offers a space to train lawyers to have good judgment, because you are confronted with complicated questions during your classes that you may have to answer for real tomorrow."
That training goes back a long way, at least to Elias Finley Johnson, JD 1890, LLM 1891, who was appointed to the Supreme Court of the Philippines in 1903.
Even then, the Law School had developed a strong global reputation, though nothing like the reputation it would have years later, with the international cache of professors such as Hessel Yntema, then Stein, and now Daniel Halberstam and Mathias Reimann, LLM '83, among many others.
Kühn was attracted to the School because of what he knew of Stein as well as Reimann, who was his mentor, but also for another reason that was just as important to him: Michigan provided much better programs for the spouse of an LLM student than any of the other schools he considered. "My wife and I both loved it there and have very happy memories," he says.
His experience studying in the United States made him an appealing appointee to the court, he says. "It's very important that you know something about other legal systems," Kühn says. "You are able to understand your own legal system much better. At the end of the day, we are all surprisingly similar, even if our courts function differently; all legal systems deal with human problems."
Rodin, the Jean Monnet Chair at the University of Zagreb Faculty of Law in Croatia, says that serving on the Court of Justice of the European Union "is a dream job for every European lawyer. Over the years the Court has acted as an engine of European integration and a guardian of the Founding Treaties of the EU. It is more than an institution. It is a symbol of the rule of law on the European continent and a genuine subject of legal integration."
He said he is grateful to the Law School for providing him with an education that "equipped me with the qualities necessary for this high service" on the Court, adding that "it feels good to be a Wolverine in Luxembourg."
Rodin and the other justices on high courts have an opportunity to "leave their marks around the world," Baer says. It's in no small part because of a long-lasting combination between doctrinal education, critical thinking, and a sense for practice, as in the clinics Michigan offers, she says.
"Michigan, to me, was and is about the world; it is much more than an ivory tower," Baer adds, "but it is filled with theory and analysis to be used in the world, and eventually change it."
Research to assemble the list of current and recent justices was conducted by the University of Michigan Law Library.