Prof. O’Brien Chairs Human Rights Section Council of the Illinois State Bar Association

Author: Susan Good

This weekend (December 11-13), Notre Dame Assistant Professor of Law Sean O’Brien will take part in the ISBA’s 2009 midyear meeting in Chicago, during which the Diversity Leadership Council will present a special program in honor President Obama’s “Call to Service” and International Human Rights Day – Lincoln’s Legacy: Lawyers Who Protect Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The program will include a keynote address by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and a panel discussion of Illinois lawyers who “make a difference” moderated by WTTW’s Chicago Tonight Host Phil Ponce.

O’Brien—who has also served as assistant director of Notre Dame Law School’s Center for Civil and Human Rights since 2005—has a wealth of experience in international and domestic human rights work. He holds three degrees from the University of Notre Dame, most recently graduating summa cum laude from the Center’s LL.M. program in 2002. His experience includes work with the Belfast law firm of Madden & Finucane before the Bloody Sunday Inquiry in Derry, Northern Ireland and litigation with the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) in the Inter-American System for the Protection of Human Rights. Immediately prior to his return to Notre Dame, he served as Chief Counsel for Immigration and Human Rights at the Center for Multicultural Human Services (CMHS) in Falls Church, VA, directing a legal services program for survivors of torture and war trauma.

O’Brien’s passion becomes service to the profession through his work as chair of the bar’s Human Rights Section Council. The body educates Illinois lawyers and the public on human rights issues and assists the bar in advocating for greater human rights protections in Illinois and beyond. “Few members of the Section Council practice human or civil rights law full-time,” explains O’Brien. “But they all see human rights as part of their vocation in the law and it informs their representation of clients.” Through their work on the Section Council, O’Brien believes that lawyers from all parts of the state and all different practice areas “rekindle the flame” that drew them to the profession of law in the first place.

Under O’Brien’s leadership, the Section Council is currently looking at ways to support the June 2008 decision of the ISBA General Assembly to oppose the death penalty in Illinois. Through legislative monitoring and other activities, the Section Council hopes to ensure and end to state-sponsored killing. The Section Council is also taking steps towards recommending that the ISBA officially support the U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The treaty is the only human rights-related treaty on the U.S. State Department’s priority list of 17 treaties “on which the Administration supports Senate action at this time.” While the U.S. signed CEDAW in 1980, the Senate has failed to take the final step of actually ratifying the treaty. The U.S. stands with Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Nauru, Palau and Tonga as the only nations in the world who have yet to ratify this treaty protecting and promoting basic human rights for women and girls. O’Brien hopes that the ISBA, along with other bar associations across the country, can help remove the U.S. from this list once and for all.

In addition to human rights, O’Brien is a member of the International and International Law Section Council, as well as the bar’s Diversity Leadership Council. “It’s important that our profession reflects the wisdom and experiences of the entire community – not just of those who have traditionally been able to afford law school. If the bar is not inclusive – and is not seen as taking active steps to promote diversity – we risk our reputation as agents of justice and as a profession that champions the law on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves.”