Minnesota Law

Fall 2023

From the Classroom to the Front Lines

Minnesota Law’s expert faculty boldly advocate for human and civil rights

Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin 

In Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin’s classroom, the principles of international and human rights law are brought to life by a professor who complements her cutting-edge scholarship with real-world diplomacy and boots-on-the-ground advocacy. 

It is her hope, Ní Aoláin says, that her students become “agents of transformative change in the world, deploying their legal skills as a force for good.” 

A University of Minnesota Regents Professor and Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society, Ní Aoláin was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council as the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism in 2017. She was re-elected for an additional three-year term in 2020. 

She was the first U.N. independent expert ever allowed to interview persons tortured and rendered to the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the first to secure access to Syria’s crowded Al-Hol and Roj detention campus and “Panorama” prison, where 52,000 people are detained — mostly women and children, the majority younger than 12 years old. 

Ní Aoláin’s human rights work extends to Bosnia, where she served as a representative of the prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and to her native country Ireland, where she is a member of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the International Commission of Jurists, and the Executive Committee for the Belfast-based Committee on the Administration of Justice. She also is a concurrent professor at Queens University of Belfast School of Law in Northern Ireland. 

Ní Aoláin serves as faculty director of the Law School’s Human Rights Center, where she leads the University’s research and human rights education efforts in the context of national security and conflict, business and development, gender, and the rights of women and non-citizens.

Professor Stephen Meili

Professor Stephen Meili

Professor Stephen Meili became interested in human rights law when he worked at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York while a 1L at NYU Law in the early 1980s. He was assigned to a project seeking to provide protection to Guatemalan lawyers who were being persecuted by that country’s United States-supported government. From that experience, Meili learned about the law of asylum and how it is designed to protect those whose home country is unable or unwilling to do so. Meili used that experience when he was a post-graduate fellow at Georgetown University Law Center, representing Salvadoran and Haitian asylum-seekers. 

Years later, when he was invited to join the law faculty at the University of Minnesota, he embraced the opportunity. “I was attracted by the quality of this school’s human rights and international law faculty,” Meili said. “I was deeply impressed by the broad and deep support that its clinical programs receive from the administration, the faculty, and the law school’s alumni.” 

Now the James H. Michael Chair in International Human Rights Law at Minnesota Law, Meili teaches immigration law, produces a steady stream of scholarly research, and oversees all 28 of the school’s clinics, including its four immigration clinics (the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, which he co-directs; the Detainee Rights Clinic; the Federal Immigration Litigation Clinic; and the Rural Immigrant Access Clinic). In addition, each summer he teaches International Refugee Law as an academic visitor at Oxford University. 

Today, Meili says, he remains grateful for the opportunity to help the next generation of lawyers augment their classroom learning with hands-on opportunities to apply their new knowledge to the real-life problems marginalized and under-resourced populations face. 

Professor Myron Orfield Jr.

Professor Myron Orfield

Professor Myron Orfield Jr. already accumulated several careers’ worth of legal and policy experience when he joined the Minnesota Law faculty in 2003 to teach in the sometimes-overlapping areas of civil rights and regional metropolitan planning. 

He previously led a legal and planning firm that focused on regional governance reform, state and local finance, regional growth management plans, and legislative redistricting in 20 U.S. states. While serving as an elected member of the Minnesota legislature, he had authored the Metropolitan Reorganization of 1994, which transformed the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council into the most significant regional government in the U.S. 

Twenty years later, Orfield’s passion for these subjects remains undiminished, as evidenced by his three influential books and ongoing scholarship that explore why strategic metropolitan and regional planning is key to remediating the harsh effects of racial and economic segregation. 

He has also become widely known for his groundbreaking efforts to help the Obama administration uphold important Fair Housing Act rules, several of which had to survive challenges at the U.S. Supreme Court. In one, Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, the Court cited Orfield’s research in support of its holding that disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act. 

Now the Earl R. Larson Professor of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law and director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at Minnesota Law, Orfield continues to shape law. Students working with him often produce substantive research and engage in high-level policy discussions with national leaders, as illustrated by the 2021 Summit for Civil Rights, which students helped run. 

“I have been here long enough to see that experience with public policy early on changes students’ lives and careers,” says Orfield. “Preparing young lawyers to participate in the ongoing dialogue of rights and liberty in this country is the most important thing we do.”