Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University
This Month @ Moritz

Professor Mary Ellen O'Connell: Working in the Interest of International Law

Mary Ellen O'ConnellMary Ellen O'Connell's academic career began taking shape as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. A history major, she spent her junior year abroad and excelled in the invitation-only honors course in U.S. foreign policy. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with highest honors, history honors, and was Northwestern's first Marshall Scholar.

Like the Rhodes Scholars, Marshall Scholars spend two years as graduate students in the United Kingdom. Mary Ellen used the first year of her two-year Marshall scholarship to earn a Master of Science in International Relations at the London School of Economics. A creative advisor and a loophole in the medieval rules governing legal study at Cambridge allowed Mary Ellen to complete her LL.B.—in advance of her J.D.—with first class honors the following year.

Two graduate degrees in hand, Mary Ellen entered Columbia University Law School. She worked during all three years of law school for the legendary Louis Henkin as his research assistant in the law school and his teaching assistant in Columbia's School of International Affairs. Demonstrating the discipline and intellect that would define her future scholarship, she was a Stone scholar, won the Berger Prize for International Law, and served as Book Review Editor for the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.

Following graduation, Mary Ellen chose Covington & Burling's Washington, DC office on the strength of its international practice. There she worked with a host of talented attorneys, in international arbitrations, on international boundary issues, sovereignty issues, international transportation and telecommunications issues. In addition to her billable work, the firm supported and encouraged her pro bono work on international human rights cases.

After entering teaching at Indiana University-Bloomington, she received grants from the German government and the McArthur Foundation, and began working in Germany. Through the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany, she helped former east block military leaders learn how to function in a post-Cold War, i.e., civilian-controlled, democratic environment. Concurrently, she taught international law at the Johns Hopkins University, and the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.

Mary Ellen and dogs
Mary Ellen with dogs Hugo and Nelson

In 1999, she joined the Moritz law faculty. Her work and research abroad allow her to look at international law from a global rather than a national perspective. She is able to advise students about international work and educational opportunities and she continues to benefit from contacts with international law scholars in many countries.

Through the San Remo Institute of International Humanitarian Law in Italy, she is working on a manual on The Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflict. When finished, the manual will be widely distributed to combatants. It contains basic information on humanitarian restraints applicable in warfare and has the potential to mitigate the worst aspects of civil wars. In addition to this project, Mary Ellen is fully engaged in research and publication. In 2002, she completed eight publications. Her work runs the gamut from issues drawn from the headlines to the history of international dispute settlement.

Mary Ellen is also a fellow of OSU's Mershon Center and holds a grant from the Center to support her study of war and terrorism's impact on state sovereignty and the United Nations. She is organizing a workshop on this subject in May, bringing together scholars from Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy and the U.K. She has held leadership posts with the American branch of the International Law Association and the ABA's International Section. The American Society of International Law, the world's leading professional organization of international lawyers, recently recognized Professor O'Connell's stature in the international law field by asking her to submit a report on the law governing pre-emptive self-defense, an issue at the vanguard of current policy debates in the United States and abroad. She has also co-chaired the Society's Annual Meeting of over 1,000 participants, and she has been a member of the Executive Council and Awards Committees.

Mary Ellen is bringing state-of-the-art technology and coverage of the current conflict in Iraq into the classroom to maximize learning opportunities. In one of the College's recently refurbished "smart classrooms," her international law students watched President Bush's live address to the United Nations as a springboard to discuss rules on the use of force and the role of the United States in the United Nations. Her contracts students tapped into the Internet's National Geographic Middle East maps to look at the Suez Canal as they discussed war risk clauses. She routinely participates in faculty panels designed to enrich students' intellectual lives and broaden their horizons.

"In the 21st Century," says Mary Ellen, "there will be very few aspects of law without an international dimension. Even family law practitioners are confronting the issues associated with international adoption, marriage, and custody." She points to the University of Michigan's requirement that all first-year law students complete a transnational course as evidence of the growing role international issues will play in all substantive areas of law, and a law school's need to prepare students to handle these issues.

The alumnus for whom her designated professorship is named has a special understanding and appreciation of international relations. The professorship is named in honor of William B. Saxbe '48, former U.S. Ambassador to India, U.S. Attorney General, U.S. Senator, and veteran of two wars.