The Brief: Law School News and Events

Louis Henkin, Leader in Human Rights Law and International and Constitutional Law Scholar
By Matthew E. Pilecki

Lou HenkinLouis Henkin, a former Penn Law and Columbia Law School professor who was a leading light in human rights law, died in his Manhattan home on Oct. 14. He was 92.

"It is no exaggeration to say that no American was more instrumental in the development of human rights law than Lou," Elisa Massimino, president and CEO of Human Rights First, a bipartisan nonprofit Henkin helped found in 1978, told The New York Times. "He literally and figuratively wrote the book on human rights."

Henkin penned one of the most prolific collections of works on constitutional and international law. His books - notably The Rights of Man Today, How Nations Behave, and The Age of Rights - have been cited in hundreds of federal and state court opinions and the New York Times described them as "required reading for government officials and diplomats." U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former faculty member at Columbia Law School and friend of Henkin, said in tribute to Henkin's 50th anniversary at the school that she turned to his works "countless times" when struggling with casework, adding that his "writings sometimes clarified what the law really is, but other times lucidly developed what the law ought to be."

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Henkin began his career in 1940 clerking for celebrated federal appellate Judge Learned Hand. But Henkin took a hiatus from law to serve in World War II, where he was awarded a Silver Star after he successfully negotiated, in Yiddish tongue, the terms of surrender of a German unit consisting of 75 men.

Returning from his tour in Europe, he went on to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, spent five years at the State Department in the Office of Regional Affairs, and served as consultant at the United Nations, where he began his career in international law. He joined Columbia Law School in 1962 as a professor in constitutional law, where he co-edited human rights and international law casebooks and co-founded Columbia's Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

Prior to a long career at Columbia, Henkin taught for five years at Penn Law School. James Strazzella L'64, James G. Schmidt chair in law at Temple Law School and former vice dean of faculty at Penn Law School, said that his 1L contracts class with Henkin left a lifelong impression.

"We were way too young and way too naïve to understand his standing in the international law field," he said. "I got the feeling from him, that you could be a good and conscientious lawyer without being gruff or brash. He was insistent, he had very strong analytical abilities, and he was very patient with our class. He reinforced the lesson that intelligence was important, but preparation, thorough analysis and high professional standards were important as well - it was apparent in him. He constantly reinforced to us that good lawyering was important to the people we represented and that we owed that to them." Survivors include his wife, Alice; three sons, Joshua, David, and Daniel; and five grandchildren.