Teaching the International Human Rights Course

UM Law School Building
Prof. Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin

After I had audited the International Human Rights Law course at the University of Minnesota Law School in the Fall of 2001, Professor David Weissbrodt asked if I wanted to help him teachthe course. Given the vast disparity between his and my knowledge of the field, I thought he was joking. “David,” I said, “you don’t need any help.” But he persisted, and I relented and accepted his offer. I then served as an Adjunct Professor at the Law School for nine years, 2002-2010.

The course continued to have the same outline and structure that I had experienced in my auditing the course in the Fall of 2001,[1] and we continued to use the same book.[2] Professors Weissbrodt and Frey still taught most of the class sessions and later were joined by another expert in the field, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin.[3]

Professor Weissbrodt and I decided that I would teach two class sessions. One was on refugee and asylum law that built on my experience as a pro bono asylum lawyer. The other was on civil litigation over foreign human rights abuses in U.S. federal courts that took advantage of my considerable experience litigating civil cases in these courts.

Each year to prepare for my two class sessions, I conducted legal research to learn about the many new developments in order to write supplements for the chapters on these subjects. I also assisted in the rewriting of these chapters for the fourth edition of the book that came out in 2009.[4] I thereby continued to use my legal research and writing skills.

This involvement also guided my online reading of various U.S. and foreign newspapers and periodicals and to the creation of a system for email distribution of interesting articles on human rights to friends and colleagues. Many of these articles later became incorporated into the annual supplements for the two chapters that I prepared.

I decided that I would use moot courts for my two class sessions. For refugee and asylum law, four students volunteered to be lawyers for an asylum applicant and the U.S. Government for closing arguments before me, acting as an Immigration Judge in the Minnesota office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS and n/k/a Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). For the other session, four additional students volunteered to be the lawyers for a corporate defendant and a foreign plaintiff in a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The moot court was before me acting as the district judge on the defendant’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint alleging the corporation had aided and abetted human rights violations in a foreign country.

In addition to being one way to learn about the substantive law, the moot courts, in my opinion, had other advantages. I thought that the moot court approach would show the students how they could become involved in international human rights while engaged in a regular legal practice in the Twin Cities or anywhere else in the U.S. Given the strength of the international human rights program at the University of Minnesota Law School, many of its graduates have gone on to be lawyers for various U.N. agencies and international human rights NGOs, but most graduates become ordinary practicing lawyers. I also wanted to emphasize the importance of a lawyer’s work at the trial court level, rather than the typical law school moot court experience of arguing before a mock appellate court like the Minnesota or U.S. Supreme Court. Most litigators have much more experience at the trial court level and rarely, if ever, argue a case before the highest court of the state or the U.S. Finally it gave the participating students the opportunity to practice and develop their oral advocacy skills.

For each of the moot court sessions, I held preparatory meetings with the student-lawyers. I gave them guidance on what to expect and answered their questions about the substantive and procedural issues. A strong enjoyable mentorship relationship developed from this total experience.

As part of the moot court exercises, I emphasized to all the students the importance of a lawyer’s knowing the background and views of the judges before whom they appear.

The hypothetical district judge in the lawsuit over foreign human rights violations, for example, had excellent credentials. Appointed for life by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, the judge was intelligent, honest, hard-working, fair and with a lot of experience on many kinds of civil and criminal cases. The judge, however, had never studied international human rights and along with the fellow judges in his court and his supervising court (the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals) has never had a case like this under the Alien Tort Statute. As a result, the lawyers for this moot court needed to explain the case thoroughly and clearly. (Fortunately the judge had a law clerk who had studied the subject at the University of Minnesota Law School.)

The hypothetical immigration judge, on the other hand, has tried many asylum cases and has a thorough knowledge of the relevant law. This judge also was intelligent, honest, hard-working and fair. As a result, in this moot court there is no need to explain asylum law to the immigration judge. Instead, the attorney needs to focus on the facts of the instant case. Such judges, it should be noted, do not have lifetime appointments. Instead, they are appointed by the U.S. Attorney General as attorneys in the Department of Justice with no fixed term of office and are subject to discretionary removal and transfer by the Attorney General.

Soon after the classes were over, I sent email critiques of the students’ performance. Invariably the students rose to the challenge and made excellent arguments. I also usually issued a hypothetical decision on the dismissal motion and on the asylum request.

I also attended many other class sessions and the presentations by outside speakers in the course as well as various conferences at the Law School. As a result, I continued to learn more about the field.

Outside the classroom I was available to talk with students about the course and more generally about practicing law and other issues. I welcomed this opportunity to learn more about those who were getting ready to pursue various legal careers. I especially enjoyed getting to know the many foreign students in the course, some of whom were Hubert Humphrey Fellows. (My wife and I also volunteered to be a host family for Fellows from Ecuador, El Salvador and Brazil.)

Museum of Republic, Rio de Janeiro
Profs. Duane Krohnke & Elizabeth Sussekind @ Museum of Republic

 

My friendship with a Humphrey Fellow from Brazil resulted in her inviting me to participate in a symposium at the Museum of the Republic in Rio de Janeiro in the Fall of 2009. The symposium was the concluding event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Brazilian constitution of 1988 that ended its military dictatorship. This symposium focused on Memory and Justice, and my paper on the Truth Commission for El Salvador provided a Latin American perspective on Brazil’s not having had a similar truth commission.[5]

I thoroughly enjoyed these many aspects of having been an adjunct professor. I never would have had these experiences if I had continued practicing law after 2001. I, therefore, view them as confirmation of the wisdom of my decision to retire from lawyering that year.[6]


[1] See Post: Auditing the International Human Rights Law Course (June 30, 2011).

[2] David Weissbrodt, Joan Fitzpatrick & Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process (3d ed. 2001).

[3] University of Minnesota Law School, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin,  http://www.law.umn.edu/facultyprofiles/niaolainf.html.

[4]  David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, Joan Fitzpatrick & Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process (4th ed. 2009).

[5] Museu da Republica, Memoria e Justica (2009).

[6] Post: Retiring from Lawyering (April 22, 2011).

My First Ten Years of Retirement

It is hard to believe that the 10th anniversary of my retirement from the practice of law is nearly here. I have no regrets. I made the correct decision. Here is my own grading of how I have met my retirement goals that I set 10 years ago.[1]

Being a good Grandfather. I now have four grandchildren, two in Minnesota and two in Ecuador. My wife and I obviously spend more time with the Minnesota kids, and our Ecuadorian grandson spent last Fall in Minnesota going to school with his cousins. We also frequently have traveled to Ecuador to see our family there although we have decided not to spend significant amounts of time there. I recently took my 10-year old Minnesota grandson to visit two federal judges and some friends at my former law firm and to observe parts of a trial and a court hearing.[2] I leave it to the grandkids to judge me on this goal, but I think I have done a pretty good job. I know I enjoy being a grandfather.

Being a good Father and Husband. I also have been making an effort to be a good father and husband. I am still working at it.

Learning Spanish. I have not taken the time to improve my very limited Spanish ability. I still wish that I were fluent in that language, but do not see myself taking the time to do this. Sorry.

Law Teaching. I had a goal of teaching law in Ecuador. I was interviewed by a university in Quito about teaching law in the English language, but I was not offered a position. My son who lives there went to the interview with me in case I needed an interpreter, and afterwards he said he thought that my positive comments about liberation theology may not have been appreciated by the university officials. In retrospect, I am not unhappy with this result. I would have had to work very hard to organize and teach one or more courses in this foreign country.

Moreover, this development opened the door for my having the opportunity to co-teach one course (international human rights law) at the University of Minnesota Law School for nine years (2002-10). This built on my experience as a federal court litigator and as a pro bono asylum lawyer. It also allowed me to work with, and become friends of, other professors at the Law School and many U.S. and foreign students. One of the foreign students was a Hubert Humphrey Fellow from Brazil who was a Professor of Law and Criminology at the Catholic university in Rio de Janeiro, and at her subsequent invitation, I presented a paper on the Truth Commission for El Salvador at a conference in Rio in 2009. In addition, through my work at the University of Minnesota I developed a strong interest in, and some expertise about, the International Criminal Court, and I have made many presentations about the ICC and have served as the Provisional Organizer for the Minnesota Alliance for the ICC.[3]

I recently decided that I would retire from this teaching job even though I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I wanted to have more time for writing as discussed below.

Human rights legal work. Without the support of a law firm, including its professional liability insurance, I decided I was not able to do pro bono legal work in retirement. But as mentioned above, I have been able to teach human rights and learn more about the subject myself. I also have developed an interest in the ICC and found a way to make use of that interest.

News “distributor.” Although not one of my goals from 2001, I have developed a practice in retirement of regularly reading many news sources online (New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post (Politics page), Wall Street Journal, Guardian (from the U.K.) and Granma (English translation of Cuba’s major national newspaper) and occasionally others (New York Review of Books, Atlantic and Harpers). After doing this for a while, I started sending by email interesting articles on human rights, the ICC, immigration, Cuba and Africa to friends who were interested in these subjects.

Arbitrator. Another retirement activity I had not anticipated in 2001 was being an arbitrator. But I have done so for disputes between investors and financial firms through the Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority (FINRA; f/k/a National Association of Securities Dealers), usually as chair of a panel of three arbitrators, and I have enjoyed this challenge. I try to act like the arbitrators and judges I respected in my practice: fair, impartial, respectful of the law, organized, decisive and clear (unlike some of the judges on the TV show “The Good Wife”).

Recently, however, I decided that I no longer wanted to spend my time working on other people’s problems and will not take any more cases. Sounds like my 2001 decision to retire from practicing law.

Obituary writer. Yet another surprising development over the last half-year has been being an obituary writer. As a member of my Grinnell College class’ 50th reunion committee, I have been responsible for writing or commissioning obituaries for our 53 deceased classmates. This used my factual research and writing skills from lawyering. I also came to see this activity in some cases as one of pastoral care for the families of the departed.

International travel. In addition to many trips to Ecuador and my trip to Brazil, my wife and I have been on many other fascinating international trips in the last 10 years. They include an Elder Hostel trip about Mozart to the Czech Republic and Austria, Turkey, Spain, England and Scotland, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Canada, Mexico, El Salvador and Peru plus my church mission trips to Cuba and Cameroon. These were great, educational experiences.  I was really glad that I was in good health to be able to take these trips. I also have been able to chair a committee that supervises the global partnerships of Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Historical research and writing. I wanted to conclude my research about Joseph Welch and Edward Burling and write articles about them. I have done so, as was mentioned in a prior post.[4] I will share some of the key points of that research in future posts. On the other hand, I have not yet been able to do additional research on two of my ancestors, but it is still a goal.

Personal journal and memoirs. I have not been able to make much progress on the goal of writing a personal journal and memoirs. I was hung up on the issue of how do I organize or structure such a writing project. Recently, however, I started this blog and have found it a great way to do the writing that I wanted to do. I do not have to worry about how I might organize all of these thoughts. It is really exciting to be able to write this blog.

Physical exercise. I have been more diligent in my personal exercise program although I should be doing more.

Financial planning and management. With the assistance of an able investment professional, I have developed appropriate methods for financial planning and management for retirement. Like nearly everyone else, we suffered financially in the recent deep recession, but we have made progress since then. I know that I am fortunate when I read articles about the many people who have not saved enough for retirement or who lost their pensions or retirement savings in the recent deep recession or through collapse of their former employers or financial fraud or who struggle to survive with investments in bank CD’s or federal securities that now pay virtually nothing in interest.

In short, I am happy with my efforts to meet my retirement goals over the last 10 years. Now I need to continue my pursuit of these now modified goals during the next phase of my life.


[1] Post: Retiring from Lawyering (4/22/11).

[2] This trip to the federal courthouse and my former law firm was inspired, in part, by recent comments of Mary Robinson, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Post: Tip for Grandparents (4/11/11).

[3] The Minnesota Alliance is part of the American NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court or AMICC, http://www.amicc.org.

[4] Post: Adventures of a History Detective (4/5/11).

 

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Growing up in the small Iowa town of Perry, I was an active member of the local Methodist Church. I was president of MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship), and our pastor, whom I respected, encouraged me to go into the ministry.

Once I went to college, however, I soon convinced myself that all religions were antiquated superstitions that were of no use to an intelligent, hard-working person like myself. This not uncommon sophomoric rebellion lasted for the next 24 years.

Westminster Presbyterian Church Sanctuary

In 1981 I could admit to others and myself that I did not have all the answers and that there was an inner emptiness in my life. I started attending and then joined Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (http://www.ewestminster.org). A friend was a member there. I worked downtown, and the church was open to the downtown community, especially through its Westminster Town Hall Forum, which brought notable people to speak on key issues in ethical perspective. This was a church, I came to understand, that respected intellect as an important aspect of religious faith and life. Its mission statement provides that “In response to the grace of God through Jesus Christ, [its mission] is:

• to proclaim and celebrate the Good News of Jesus Christ;
• to gather as an open community to worship God with dignity and joy, warmth and beauty;
• to nourish personal faith through study, prayer, and fellowship;
• to work for love, peace and justice;
• to be a welcoming and caring Christian community, witnessing to God’s love day by day;
• to work locally and beyond with our denomination and the larger Christian Church; and
• to be a telling presence in the city.”

I have been and continue to be an active member of Westminster, serving as an elder and member of various committees. Most recently I have been chairing its Global Partnerships Committee that supervises our partnerships with churches and other organizations in Brazil, Cameroon, Cuba, and Bethlehem. This is one way we endeavor to fulfill the Biblical injunction from Apostle Paul: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26, 28)[1] In other words, we are all brothers and sisters without the artificial distinctions that so often divide us from one another.