Wednesday, June 12, 2019


Yale Law '90: Michael O'Connor

Over the next several months, I am devoting Wednesdays on the blog to profiling some of my Yale Law classmates. Everyone knows about Brett Kavanaugh, but there are so many other people who are fascinating and accomplished!

If you have read Bryan Stevenson's excellent book Just Mercy, you have already come across the remarkable work of Michael O'Connor. He appears in Chapter 7 of that book, when he comes on board to help Stevenson and Bernard Harcourt represent Walter McMillan, who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Stevenson, O'Connor, and Harcourt pursued the case until McMillan was exonerated after six years on death row.

O'Connor came into law school like a ball of fire. He got to college late, but then blazed through his undergrad studies at Penn State and graduated summa cum laude. At Yale Law, he was both brilliant and deeply principled, a moral figure who often (rightly) challenged the rest of us. He cared about working people, the poor, criminal defendants, and the disadvantaged with a consistency that gave him credibility and gravitas. While in law school he was the student director of both the Green Haven Prison Project and the Jerome Frank Prison Legal Services. He did some of the things I should have done in those years. I really admired him at the time, and I still do today.

Our paths have intersected since school: He was my immediate predecessor teaching criminal law at the University of St. Thomas. He now serves as a professor of law at the University of LaVerne in California. His work stretches beyond the usual scholarship professors put out there-- with his partner and wife Celia Rumann, he has worked on a variety of non-traditional projects, such as this film documenting the work of Northwestern University Law students in Malawi:

We all have our critics, and Mike has had his (it comes with the territory when you are and advocate or an academic, and he is both). It is telling, though, that the message of his critics is always pretty much the same and boils down to this: that he is too zealous in his advocacy for the condemned, for the poor, for the disadvantaged, and for his students. If that is the worst thing people say about you, you have lived a damned good life.

He may not be as well-recognized and has not been monetarily enriched in the way that some other classmates have, but Michael O'Connor has done a lot of good in this world. I hope that our paths intersect again in the future.

That is absolutely a good kind of complaint to have. Thank you for sharing his story and his work. What a gift he and his wife must be to the world.
JadeEJF-- They are! Because they were here for a while I hear stories of their time in this community, and they all include a deep passion for the powerless and disenfranchised.
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