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From one ‘genius’ to another: sujatha baliga L’99 talks about her Law School experience

November 25, 2019

Earlier this fall, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced that restorative justice attorney sujatha baliga L’99 was chosen as a MacArthur Fellow and winner of a $625,000 award known as a “genius grant,” which recognizes those who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” sujatha also secured the Louis H. Pollak Alumni award this year.

Recently, she visited the Law School to be honored by the Toll Public Interest Center at “Generations of Impact: Mentorship, Criminal Justice and the Future of Accountability” along with 1986 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Professor David Rudovsky.

Here’s what sujatha had to say about her time at the Law School.

Q: How did your experience at the Law School influence your legal career?

A: It was a MacArthur Fellow, Professor David Rudovsky, who let me cry in his office and advised me against dropping out of law school, and who ultimately gave me a summer job at his civil rights law firm. Professor Rudovsky continued to guide me for many years after graduation on how to best use my legal education for the benefit of people accused of crimes. It was an incredible blessing to have that kind of access to someone with a prodigious heart and mind at a such a formative time in my development.

Q: Are there any other professors that stand out?

A: Two other professors were deeply influential to my thinking: Professors Howard Lesnick and Susan Sturm. Professor Lesnick helped me to develop an understanding of the relationship of my religious life to my commitments as a public interest lawyer – this exploration was no small part of what led me to restorative justice.

And Susan Sturm (now at Columbia Law) helped me think rigorously about the relationship of historical and present racial inequity to injustice; she’s remained a steadfast supporter of my work to this day. For these and many other blessings, including the Public Interest Fellowship that lessened my educational debt load, I am grateful for my time at the Law School.

Q: What about friendships made during law school?

A: Most important, it was a fellow student who first said the words “restorative justice” to me — Susan Marcus L ’00. Susan heard the things I was grappling with both personally and professionally and continually pushed me to consider restorative justice’s implications for my work and life. She remains a close colleague and best friend to this day.

Q: What do you plan to do with your award?

A: I’ve received two blessings through the MacArthur Fellowship: the spotlight it shines on my body of work and the financial freedom it offers.

On the practical front, I’ll be using the first few grant payments to pay off my remaining student debt. I was thrilled to recently learn how the Law School has grown its public interest loan repayment program since my law school days, creating more financial freedom for people seeking to offer their legal skills in social justice-oriented settings.

On the subject matter front, I’ll use the platform the MacArthur offers to lift up the restorative justice diversion work I began over 12 years ago. I’ll also take time to deepen my engagement with indigenous, Buddhist, and Mennonite thinkers and practitioners the world over, from whom I’ve already learned so much about restorative justice and forgiveness. 

I suspect there will be more than one book I will write over the next five years — books about forgiveness, restorative justice, and the secular ethics that undergird effective efforts towards a world free from oppression.

And, after spending the day with the wonderful students at the Law School, I’m reinvigorated to use some of my fellowship time refining the restorative justice law school course curriculum I’ve been developing.

But to be frank, I’m still in a bit of a state of shock and have only just begun to imagine the myriad ways this fellowship will make my work more beneficial and broadly accessible.