Louis Henkin, a constitutional law scholar who helped found the field of human rights law, died last week. He was 92.
Henkin, a 1940 graduate of Harvard Law School, founded Columbia’s Center for the Study of Human Rights in 1978 and the Human Rights Institute in 1998.
His writings on foreign affairs, constitutional law, and human rights law became foundational texts for law students and government officials alike.
His son Josh H. Henkin ’87 remembers his father’s humility and discipline in his work.
“Everything I know about my father’s accomplishments I know from someone else,” Henkin said. “He was a deeply modest man.”
Josh Henkin said that his father rarely talked about his work with family or friends.
“I think a lot of people knew him only as the kindly old man at synagogue. Or the doorman knew him as the guy who always said ‘hello.’ But he actually had this clandestine life as a human rights scholar.”
Henkin’s “clandestine life” included clerkships for judges on a federal appellate court and on the Supreme Court, and a storied career in the State Department in the Office of Regional Affairs.
As a professor of law he taught hundreds of judges, including Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.
“Henkin’s tireless scholarship, advocacy, and teaching changed not only law and government behavior, but also how people around the world understand the dignity of every person,” said Law School Dean Martha L. Minow in a press release.
Henkin applied to Law School on a whim after graduating from Yeshiva College, his son said.
Previously he had pursued math—an interest since childhood—and may have considered becoming a math professor.
According to his son, when five-year-old Henkin arrived at Ellis Island with his family in 1923 after immigrating from Belarus, he refused to answer the questions of the immigration officials. In an effort to coax him to speak, his father asked Henkin a math problem. Henkin answered the question and the family was allowed the enter the United States.
Josh Henkin said he remembers that while studying for the SAT, his father would bring home lists of words that he had encountered that day at Columbia Law School—often legal jargon—for Josh to practice.
“Never in the history of the SAT would those words ever appear,” Josh said. “I spent a lot of my childhood being taken to the dictionary by my father.”
Henkin wrote many articles and widely-cited books including “Foreign Affairs and the Constitution,” “The Rights of Man Today,” “How Nations Behave” and “The Age of Rights.”
Law School Professor Gerald L. Neuman ’73, Henkin’s former colleague who was elected last month to the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee, said: “Louis Henkin was a giant in the fields of constitutional law and international relations. He was also a uniquely gifted advocate and recruiter for the cause of human rights.”
—Staff writer Zoe A.Y. Weinberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.