Robin Walker Sterling Among Scholars Receiving $2 Million Gift to Support Children’s Constitutional Rights


By Shanice Harris

Faculty Faculty Scholarship Social Justice

In June, an anonymous donor gifted $2.1 million to support children’s constitutional rights. The newly funded project, the Advancement of Children’s Constitutional Rights consortium, includes three nationally recognized children’s rights legal scholars: Robin Walker Sterling, Mayer Brown/Robert A. Helman Professor of Law, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, and Associate Dean for Clinical Education; Tanya Washington, professor of law at Georgia State University; and Catherine Smith, professor and Chauncey G. Wilson Memorial Research Chair at University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

The consortium is inspired by lawyers, judges, and children’s advocates who engage with national issues affecting children including gun violence, educational inequalities, climate change, and mass incarceration. These conversations often de-emphasize children’s constitutional rights or take legal doctrines developed in adult contexts and reflexively apply them to young people.

“Congratulations to Associate Dean Robin Walker Sterling and Professors Catherine Smith and Tanya Washington on this impactful gift to advance their critically important work on children’s constitutional rights,” Dean Hari Osofsky said. “We are grateful for their important work on children’s rights and excited for the difference that the Advancement of Children’s Constitutional Rights consortium will make.”

The three professors are developing a first of its kind casebook, “Children and the Constitution.” “It revises the constitutional law canon from a children’s rights perspective,” says Walker Sterling. “In this society, we have a way of having conversations about children and their well-being without including them or letting them express their stake in the situation.”

Walker Sterling cites gun violence as an example of an issue that greatly affects children but is often discussed without their input. “Gun violence is the leading cause of death for children in our country now, but you don’t hear people talking about gun violence from a children’s rights perspective,” she says. “You always hear a second amendment perspective, which is an adult perspective.” Other issues of interest to the consortium include education, family, and climate change.

The professors are also developing a series of children’s rights courses and workshops in collaboration with other scholars and activists, which will be based in federal and various state’s constitutional law. The plan is to work with juvenile law scholars to adapt the courses and workshops for different jurisdictions, says Walker Sterling. “We are aiming to build a community of law scholars who think of children’s rights in a child-centric perspective.”

The consortium has already awarded their first set of gifts to support scholars doing research and writing in this area. “Over the next three years, we are having four separate convenings of children’s rights practitioners, experts, and advocates who will focus on the core four topics of the consortium,” says Walker Sterling. The first event will be held at Georgia State College of Law in Atlanta in spring 2024.

Lastly, the consortium is submitting a chapter to an international periodical that focuses on children’s rights, which will discuss the 14th amendment from a children’s rights perspective. “If we’re going to be a society that actually does right by its kids then we should be taking their interests and ideas into account in these national conversations,” says Walker Sterling.

Walker Sterling is excited to see what the consortium can accomplish in this exciting time in her career. “I love working with Catherine and Tanya,” she says. “They are brilliant. I love that all three of us are Black women and it’s like sitting around with my super smart sisters. It’s always really, really fun, in addition to being some of the most exciting, intellectual work that I’ve done in my career.”

She hopes the work that she is doing now will manifest itself as concrete change in the future. “The idea is that 50 years from now we will be a society that looks back on how we treated children and we feel ashamed, because we’ve evolved past this very punitive model that we’ve relied on for such a long time.”