Remembering Bella Sobah: The Rainbow in Our Clouds
We write to pay tribute to our friend Bella Sobah, who died unexpectedly on June 18. In May, she graduated from the U.W. Law School. She was eager to build a legal career, here in her hometown of Madison, where she’d accepted her dream job working at the Juvenile Unit of the Dane County District Attorney’s Office.
Bella’s death struck us hard. She was, to us, invincible. She was a sage, our friend and confidant who, though only 25, we trusted and cherished like someone three times her age. We marveled at her ability to channel the power of our heroes, strong Black women like Beyoncé and Maya Angelou, and from Bella’s example, we learned to push harder, to stand taller, to raise our voice and to sing louder. Our friend Bella may have been small, but, my god, she be fierce.
Her talent was boundless, with an almost divine capacity to both comfort us and harden us. She could be the rainbow in our clouds, or, at other times, our dragon breathing fire. In the midst of the chaos of law school, she shone as the person we aspired to be, a once-in-a-generation mind with a passion for justice, an outspoken advocate who strived to help young people chart and pursue a nobler course. She inspired these young people, as she inspired us, with her wisdom, kindness, and generosity.
She was our friend. She was our sister. She was our teacher. And we’re heartbroken to know that she had so many more lessons left to share, teaching all of us who knew her, through both her words and her deeds. Now, without her, the world feels lesser, a much darker, a much more incautious place.
We will grieve for her, and every day we will miss her. But, above all else, we will never … ever … forget her.
Current BLSA President
Brittani M. Miller
BLSA President (2019-20)
BLSA faculty advisor
U.W. Law School, Madison
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Rethink How the Supreme Court Assigns Opinions?
I instinctively recoil from the suggestion of Ryan Owens in “Should the Supreme Court Change How It Assigns Opinion?” (Wisconsin Lawyer, May 2020) that cases in the Wisconsin court be assigned by the chief justice, rather than randomly, which is now the case. Judicial consensus, although desirable, is not an end in itself. To assign cases based on the unique experience and skills of the individual justice prevents other justices, who are elected officials, from becoming better trained in areas outside their comfort zones.
Limiting dissents is not a worthy goal. Dissenting opinions can form the seed of future developments in the law. To allow a chief justice to “punish bad behavior” through opinion assignments, as Mr. Owens suggests, stifles the freedom from which springs creativity. Is bullying ever a good idea?
My experience has been that often the justice assigned to write an opinion has to change a vote when the opinion agreed on just will not write. That comes from valuing open thought and the opportunity to change a mind. This is just a bad idea, and we should not adopt it here in Wisconsin.
David Walther Law, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Who Has the Burden to Ensure Diverse Leadership? It Isn’t Only the ‘Firsts’
I had a strong reaction to “Breaking Barriers in the Law,” the June President’s Message. It struck a nerve. While it is always important for those who are “first” to work to bring others along, trust me when I say we already know and feel that obligation without being told that “being first is only important if you are paving the way for someone behind you to go even further.”
The firsts discussed in the column are noteworthy, but these events did not just happen this year; they are themselves the result of lots of efforts by others who have been “walking on the trail.” Those who were “first” have been working on diversity for years even when the State Bar’s commitment to this issue has waxed and waned over the last 20 years. It is also important to note that some of these firsts would not have occurred but for vibrant affinity bar associations that have provided leadership opportunities to their members that have subsequently been recognized by the State Bar.
I was struck by the fact that the column seemed to place the responsibility for ensuring diverse leadership on those who may have been first. Placing the obligation on those who were first ignores the State Bar’s obligation to look at its role and responsibility. Does the organization and its processes put up or maintain some of those barriers on the “trail”? Is only one type of experience valued for leadership? Does the office of president require working in a way that disproportionately precludes people of color or those in government practice? Where do the majority of lawyers of color practice? How do these things correlate? Does the way in which the nominating committee does its work provide time to plan and prepare for the significant impact that the president’s role requires?
Finally, the State Bar must look at how it conducts its other work to see whether it is consistent in working toward diversity and inclusion. Ignoring diversity in speaker panels, writers of book chapters, and CLE presenters may signal that diversity in leadership is not important.
Clearing the “trail” is not a job that falls just to the “firsts”; it must be taken up by the entire State Bar.
Michelle A. Behnke
Michelle Behnke & Associates, Madison
Response: Thank you, Michelle, for your thoughtful letter. You have been a true inspiration and a tireless advocate for diversity and equal justice during your many years of service to our legal profession.
You are absolutely right that the burden to remove racist, sexist, and other barriers and bring up other people does not fall exclusively on the “first.” For anyone who felt I was placing burdens on women or people of color to solve injustice on their own, I deeply apologize. It is never the duty of the oppressed to explain why oppression and discrimination are wrong. Let me be clear: the responsibility to break down institutional biases and promote diversity belongs to those in positions of power or privilege.
When I submitted my column in the early days of May – weeks before the brutal murder of George Floyd – my thoughts were on the work that still needed to be done and the pushback we get from those who say we’ve gone far enough or believe it “builds character” to go through the same struggles as the generation before. Drawing inspiration from the “firsts” helps me deal with those who argue against removing institutional barriers as “tradition” or because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Before George Floyd’s tragic death, the State Bar was seeing positive results implementing its Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. Progress was tangible – greater diversity in our speakers, authors, and images – the most diverse group of leaders to ever serve the State Bar. But, progress was too slow. Now, we have the momentum to push forward true, institutional changes. I called together a new Racial Justice Leadership Group and charged several groups within the State Bar to work on specific racial justice and diversity and inclusion initiatives. I encourage members to see what the State Bar is doing and how they can help at WisBar.org/racialequity.
State Bar Past President