In 1972, fed up with complaints about his civil rights record by critics within and outside his administration, President Richard M. Nixon decided to fire one of the most influential: Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, then chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
If Hesburgh was bitter, he didn’t let on about it. What he did do was come home to the Notre Dame campus and in 1973 create the Center for Civil Rights in the Notre Dame Law School. Later renamed the Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR), it became custodian of the books, papers and records Hesburgh had amassed during 15 years as a charter member of the commission. Over time, it also became a pre-eminent center of teaching, research and advocacy in international human rights.
Among the roughly 250 graduates of the center’s programs are lawyers adjudicating war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
“My general sense is that its true — and probably demonstrable as well — that there is somebody from Notre Dame at every human rights tribunal and institution” in the world, says Juan Méndez, director of the center from 1999 to 2004 and currently president of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York.
When the center was founded in 1973, Hesburgh recalls, “The grand design was to keep working on the achievement of civil rights in the United States. The biggest part of the achievement was to get the laws passed.”
Over time, however, the focus shifted to international human rights law. In part this reflected changes in the interests of the directors at the time, changes that coincided with the adoption of a human rights emphasis in U.S. foreign policy.
It was President Jimmy Carter who first advocated such an emphasis in his 1977 Notre Dame commencement address. “[O]ur policy should reflect our people’s basic commitment to promote the cause of human rights,” he said.
Eventually, the centerpiece of the center’s activities became training young lawyers from around the world in the master’s program.
The office of the provost annually funds 15 full-tuition scholarships and 11 full-living expense stipends for participants in these programs. Mendez called this support key to the center’s quality and success, because it attracts many excellent applicants and allows the center to be selective in those it chooses.
Since 2005, the center has been under the leadership of Douglass Cassel, one of the eminences of the human and civil rights bars. Cassel has worked on human rights commissions, panels, advisory bodies and investigative teams in Northern Ireland, El Salvador and numerous other countries. He has been involved in human rights litigation all over the world, and recently has been active in challenging the detentions of alleged “enemy combatants” at the Guantanamo prison in Cuba.
A co-founder of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University, Cassel served as its executive director from 1990 to ’98. He moved in 1998 to the Northwestern University Law School as director of its Center for International Human Rights.
He spent the spring semester in 2002 as a visiting professor at Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights and enjoyed the experience enough to tell Law School Dean Patricia O’Hara ’74J.D. that, if there ever were an opening for which he might be a fit, he would like to be considered for it. Two years later, the center directorship came open when Méndez left for New York, and Cassel was a natural replacement.
Along with his assistant director Sean B. O’Brien ‘95, ’01J.D., ’02LL.M., Cassel has begun putting his own imprint on the center and its programs. Among his priorities, he said, are to revive the center’s original focus on domestic civil rights law—not to the exclusion of the international programs but in addition to them.
“Students who come to Notre Dame Law School, who come to a law school that says it wants to make a difference and which espouses Catholic social values, it seems to me are well served by having an institutional vehicle to work on and study civil rights issues.”
Notre Dame’s Catholicism was a central reason for Cassel’s decision to leave Northwestern and come to South Bend. Notre Dame, he says, is “a place where you can unite your faith and your profession in an integrated fashion.”