The Hon. James E. Baker has always known that he was meant for a life of public service. Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was raised—as his mother once told him—to be a teacher. But he had other plans.
“I came to the conclusion at a young age that anybody who had the educational opportunities I was given had an obligation to perform public service,” says Judge Baker, a professor in Syracuse University’s College of Law and director of the Institute for Security Policy and Law. “Teaching is public service, but I embraced the concept of the citizen-soldier.”
Baker joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 18 after spotting several recruitment brochures on the floor of the college post office. “I was looking for the hardest thing I could do and found it on the floor of the post office,” he says. He started his military career as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps and subsequently joined the staff of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, a federal civilian court that hears military justice appeals, for 15 years before retiring in 2015.
It was Sen. Moynihan who urged him to go to law school, an idea that Baker initially wasn’t crazy about but eventually warmed to. “I do love the concept of rule of law. I want to live in a democracy and in a country that’s governed by law. Having the opportunity to support and defend the Constitution, I think, is as high a calling as you can have as a lawyer,” says Baker, who is partial to all corps such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. “It is also the oath that service members take defining their ultimate duty: ‘to support and defend the Constitution.’”
Baker has taught at several law schools around the country and says Syracuse University’s commitment to veterans is one of the things that distinguishes the school. He says he encountered only a single veteran on the faculty of the other law schools where he taught. “College campuses tend not to be places where there’s a lot of military experience, and one of Syracuse’s strengths is that they value and embrace that experience,” he explains. “In academics, we recognize diversity as an educational value and a democratic principle. The military is the most diverse institution I have ever been associated with, which is likely one reason it puts so much emphasis on character, commitment and competence as virtues—not where you are from, your school or who your parents are.”
One of the ways the College of Law has been particularly helpful to active duty students is through its online law degree JDinteractive, Baker says. Many of the program’s students are active duty service members, veterans or military-connected. “Syracuse University and the College of Law provided the platform for these students, who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to attend law school.”
As the Orange community celebrates Veterans Day, Baker reflects on those who have served a greater good. “I always think about the people who served who didn’t come home. They hold a special place for all of us on Veterans Day.” Three years ago, Baker started a tradition of the law school holding its own Veterans Day commemoration. “I wanted to make sure that, even at a university like Syracuse that genuinely values military service, its law school also made that connection and celebrated this mission of supporting and defending the Constitution.”