Meet a Colleague: Russell Miller Russell Miller is the J.B. Stombock Professor of Law at W&L Law where his research and teaching focus on public law and comparative law.
Russell Miller is the J.B. Stombock Professor of Law at W&L Law where his research and teaching focus on public law and comparative law. Professor Miller is a leading commentator on German law and legal culture from a foreign perspective. He’s published a number of books and articles, including a commentary on German constitutional law that former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called a “masterful text.” He is a two-time Fulbright Research Award recipient and in 2021 he was awarded the Humboldt Senior Research Prize, which is one of Germany’s highest academic honors. Professor Miller was raised in a village tucked high up in the peaks of the continental divide in a remote part of Idaho. He was a mediocre college football player at Washington State University and, after earning his B.A. in English Literature, he moved on to study law and literature at Duke University. Professor Miller practiced criminal defense law after law school, representing death-sentenced inmates in their post-conviction appeals in Arizona and Tennessee. One of those cases involved German defendants and the work he did with the German consulate on that case led him to a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship through which he learned German and participated in work experiences in Germany. Later, he served as a law clerk at the German Federal Constitutional Court and earned a LL.M. (Master of Laws) at the University of Frankfurt. Professor Miller has two children – a 18 year old son who is a professional soccer player and a 16 year old daughter who is a budding singer-songwriter, volleyball star, and academic marvel. Professor Miller once happened upon the Noble Prize winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa in a quiet bar. They spoke about the writer’s life and politics and literature for several hours. At the end of that incredible conversation, Vargas Llosa said to him: “You, dear man, should be a professor.” Professor Miller said: “Thank you. I’m proud to say I am!”
Q. Where is your favorite location on the W&L campus?
I have two answers. First, I love our big classrooms – Room A and Room B – because that’s where I’ve spent so much amazing time with our students. I think of those spaces as filled with the students’ energy and intelligence and good-will. I like that the big windows along the outer walls open the classrooms to the world, letting the light in on our work. Second, I love the wooden bridge that curves away from the Market Place Cafeteria at the Elrod Commons. It’s up in the crowns of the trees. Season by season there’s a completely different atmosphere up there – lush and green in summer; colorful and crisp in the fall; spindly and stark in the winter. And there’s still a tradition of saying “hello” to the people you pass on the bridge. That feels like the best of W&L to me.
Q. What is your favorite thing to do when you are not working?
This is pretty humdrum territory for me! No skydiving. No side-hustle in a jazz ensemble. But I am extremely – and happily – involved in the lives of my children. They’re both pretty sporty. So that’s a big, contented part of my life outside of the classroom or away from the writing desk. For years I’ve been courtside for my daughter’s volleyball matches or stalking the sidelines of my son’s soccer games. Seeing them with teammates and seeing them enjoy some success (and plenty of setbacks) has been a great joy. It’s also involved thousands and thousands of miles driving with them around the region. Apart from that big commitment, I’d say I just enjoy experiencing culture – film, opera, museums. When I can, I steal time for art like this because it reminds me of the greatness in us and because it often stirs emotion or new meaning for me.
Q. Book/Podcast/TV Show Recommendation?
I am a reliable consumer of all the products produced by The Economist. I read the weekly news magazine (yes, I still get an old-school print edition in the post) and I listen to several of their podcasts, especially the daily news program “The Intelligence.” Their coverage is deeply informed and globally-oriented. It leans libertarian, but once you know that you can access the content on your own terms and without eroding your own point-of-view. And it’s anything but reactionary. I couldn’t navigate the world without that coverage. That’s one answer. A favorite book? What a cruel question. How to pick just one? I would regret my life if I’d never read Garcia-Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I re-read Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being every few years. I read (and re-read) anything and everything from Elena Ferrante. Spotify reported that Bon Iver was my most listened to artist/group in 2022. That’s what it reported in 2021, too. And for several years before that. Who am I to argue with Spotify?
Q. Who inspired you to teach?
My Shakespeare professor at Washington State University was named John Ehrstine. He was passionate and knowledgeable. He also saw the potential in all of his students. He demanded that we do hard work with those marvelous, impossible texts. But I had the feeling that he pushed us because he wanted us to be our best and to grow. It was in his classes that it first dawned on me that I might spend my life with students. Even as I moved on in my education and career, Professor Ehrstine remained a mentor and supporter. Later, at Duke Law School, I was lucky enough to attend classes with Jerome Culp. Professor Culp was Duke Law’s first African-American faculty member and he embodied profound courage in that respect. He also brought race-conscious critiques of the law to the material we were studying – especially in his Torts course. That made it obvious that justice was central to the project of teaching, learning and practicing the law. Alongside all of that, Professor Culp was supportive, caring, and deeply funny. When I graduated from Duke I invited him to lunch with the last few dollars from my last student-loan check so I could thank him for being such a profound influence and inspiration. True to form, he challenged me in that conversation. And I’ve also never laughed so hard. That was the last time I saw him. He passed away a decade after I graduated.
I know I haven’t lived up to their examples. But these two set the standard I’m striving towards.
Q. What research are you working on?
This is a humbling question because so many of my colleagues here at the Law School are doing truly world-class research that has a profound impact. By comparison, my work is pretty modest!
Still, I’m thrilled to say that I’ve just finished a massive manuscript for a new textbook that will introduce German law and legal culture for non-German students and jurists. In one sense, I’ve been working on this project for two decades as I’ve studied and written about German law across my academic career. I kind of see the book as my love letter to German legal culture – and we all know that some love letters go unanswered, that sometimes our love goes unrequited. But, I had to say everything I say there and now it’s been said. One thing I love about the project is that generations of W&L students have helped me bring the project to life – by working from and discussing draft chapters in my seminar on comparative law or by lending concrete support as Research Assistants. Without all that feedback and insight, and without the tangible contributions of my RAs, I wouldn’t have completed the book. I’m really indebted to our students for this partnership across the last years. It’s not too much to say that they are the book’s co-authors.
Next to the textbook, which I hope to see in print at the start of 2024, I think I’m close to finishing a big project that surveys the debate about the doctrine of stare decisis at the Supreme Court in the years since the ascendance of the new conservative majority at the Court. Back in 2018 I began documenting that debate in the expectation that it was an essential part of the jurisprudential maneuvering that would be necessary if the new majority intended to overturn Roe v. Wade. After all, the precedential force of Roe and Casey would stand in the way of that agenda. I’ve mapped that debate across nearly 20 decisions that often involved several majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions. The debate has been lively, inventive, strategic and often acrimonious. In some ways it revived my confidence in the Justices and the integrity of the work they do, even as I resented the fact that the debate was being carried out for such a regrettable purpose. The next steps in the project involve assessing the Court’s ultimate engagement with stare decisis in Dobbs and making arguments about the fate of precedent in our constitutional jurisprudence after that tectonic decision. I’ve learned so much from this project. And here, too, I’ve gotten invaluable help from students in my Constitutional Law classes and from my W&L RAs.
Q. What courses are you teaching this semester?
I have a big section of Constitutional Law and a big section of Transnational Law. Between the two courses, I think I’m seeing nearly all the students in the Class of 2025. A lucky handful have eluded me! I honestly think I’m one of the luckiest people in the world to get to spend my time thinking about and discussing these subjects with our smart students. There’s plenty of solid doctrine in both courses. But they’re also fundamentally about the world we live in and the hopes we have for justice and peace.
Q. If you could have coffee or tea with one person, who would it be and why?
Can I have two coffee appointments? First, I would sit down with Paul Robeson who, in my opinion, is one of the greatest-ever Americans. There’s so much about him I admire and so much I’d like to talk about with him! He was one of the first African-American football All-Americans (two-time consensus All-American at Rutgers) and then he finished law school while playing professional football. He later became a world-class actor and singer. He was a massive talent on the football field. He was an impressive student and lawyer. He was a soaring artist. And, because of his activism for social justice in America, he was eventually black-listed in the McCarthy era. Robeson is a monumental figure, embodying art, sport, justice, activism and sacrifice.
Second, I would hope for a meeting with the German legal scholar Hermann Kantorowicz. Kantorowicz was the most thoughtful observer of German legal culture, the subject I’ve spent a professional lifetime studying. He also was unwaveringly courageous (and a little bit cantankerous). He challenged conservative and nationalist ideology in Germany in the inter-war years, famously publishing a comprehensive and unpopular report identifying Germany’s responsibility for starting WWI. As a jurist, Kantorowicz dissected and disputed the Germans’ formalist and positivistic approach to the law. He hoped for a greater recognition of the policy and politics involved in the work of the law. He was exiled from Germany because of his Jewish heritage. He was also an irascible character, often offending and provoking his friends and allies as much as his enemies.
Q. What is an accomplishment you are proud of?
I’m proud of the books I’ve published, in part because several of them were collaborations and they now connect me with cherished friends and colleagues. I hope they’ve made a contribution to our understanding of little slices of the world and the law. One of them, a book I published in 2005 with my friend Rebecca Bratspies, examined the legacy of a major international law case known as the Trail Smelter Arbitration. It was an immense privilege that that work led to me being called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. There were several presidential candidates on the panel that day and I sparred with them and the other witnesses called to give testimony at the hearing. Afterwards, Senator Booker approached me to reminisce about facing each other in a college football game (for both of us, mostly from the bench) when we were much, much younger. I’ve had a number of remarkable experiences in my work in Germany, including testifying before the German Parliament (Bundestag). But considering its enduring success and the many, many lives it’s touched, I’d have to say that I’m proudest of having established and fostered the German Law Journal for the last two decades. The Journal pioneered the open-access and online publication format that has become the model for scholarly work today. The W&L and Google journal rankings say that the GLJ is the #1 journal in the world covering European Law.
Q. Favorite food/restaurant/drink?
There’s a magical pizzeria in the working-class neighborhood called Bockenheim in Frankfurt. It’s owned by a migrant family from Naples who settled in post-war Germany as guest-workers in the 1960s. It’s around the corner from the apartment I lived in when I studied and then worked in Frankfurt. The place is always packed with bankers and students and immigrants and government employees and construction workers. Because of the wood-fired oven it’s always too hot and steamy, which is a life-saver on a cold, German, winter night. The pizza is cheap and divine. The beer is cold and inexpensive. I have to confess that I’ve sometimes deliberately booked long lay-overs in Frankfurt when I’m traveling so I can rush into the city to order a “Pizza #10” at the Pizzeria Da Cimino.
Q. Most used app on your phone?
The German App “Kicker” thoroughly covers the German soccer scene. I check it a few times each day for scores, news, and player-transfer updates. I’m a fan of German soccer and for the last several years I have been the boss and unbeatable champion of a Bundesliga Fantasy league. That “Kicker” App is indispensable to my dominance.
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