Throughout history and around the world, remarkable individuals have taken steps both large and small to protect and advance the rule of law. Lawyers who fight for justice for clients, judges who follow the law even when it defies popular opinion, individual men and women who, despite great personal risks, stand up for due process and for legal systems that treat all people with fairness and dignity — these everyday heroes are guardians of the rule of law who ensure the functioning of democracy and protect human rights. The Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian program honors these remarkable individuals through events and personal interviews that share their stories and remind us all of the power of an individual to make a difference.
The Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian series is named for Raphael Lemkin, one of the leading scholars of human rights of the 20th century. A Polish scholar and lawyer, Lemkin dedicated his life to the study of war crimes and advocated for the use of criminal law to defend peace and prosecute crimes against humanity. He developed both the term and the concept of genocide and in doing so shed light on the insidious practice of systematic elimination of entire cultures and peoples. He came to the United States during WWII as a refugee and joined the Duke Law faculty at the invitation of Duke Law Professor Malcom McDermott, with whom Lemkin had worked on scholarly projects. Lemkin was named a consultant to the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration and later became a special adviser on foreign affairs to the War Department, largely due to his expertise in international law. In 1948, he succeeded in securing the passage of the Genocide Convention at the United Nations, which obligated member states to bring crimes of genocide in neighboring nations to trial.
More information about Raphael Lemkin can be found in this feature from Duke Law Magazine. Duke University Libraries also maintains this guide to archives and materials related to Lemkin’s time at Duke from April 1941 to June 1942.
Professor James E. Coleman, Jr., 2022
Professor James E. Coleman Jr. is the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, and director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law. A beloved member of the Duke University faculty for more than 25 years, Coleman is a nationally recognized leader in pursuing justice for the wrongfully convicted and for death penalty reform.
Coleman’s career has been distinguished by his insistence that every person accused of a crime has a constitutional right to a robust defense and to due process. In the late 1980s, Coleman represented serial killer Ted Bundy during his death-row appeals in Florida. In 2006, Coleman chaired Duke University’s ad-hoc committee charged with examining the disciplinary record of Duke’s men’s lacrosse team after three players were accused of rape. Amid overwhelming public outrage and a broadly held assumption that the players were guilty, Coleman was the lone voice urging due process for the accused students and warning all involved against a rush to judgment. Throughout his time at Duke he has directed clinical programs — in appellate litigation, death penalty, and wrongful convictions — designed to ensure that the system in all of its parts is true to its constitutional commitments.
Time and again, in the face of fervent criticism and personal threats, Coleman has steadfastly fought for justice and fair treatment of individuals accused of crimes — even for the most unpopular of clients.
“Professor Coleman has always stood for the highest ideals of our justice system,” said David F. Levi, Levi Family Professor of Law and Judicial Studies and director of the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law. “He has dedicated his career and life’s work to holding our justice system to its promise of justice for every citizen. He also is a superb teacher in the classroom and a wonderful teacher by example in the courtroom and in the cases that he has handled. He has shown generations of law students, as well as so many of his colleagues, that lawyers must stand for justice, even when the client is reviled by the public and stands accused by the government.”
The Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal honors individuals who work to protect the rule of law in their everyday work, in ways large and small. It is named for Raphael Lemkin, a one-time Duke Law faculty member and one of the leading 20th century scholars of human rights. The Bolch Judicial Institute honored Benjamin Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg Trial prosecutor, with the inaugural Lemkin Medal in 2020. The medal is awarded by the director of the Bolch Judicial Institute in consultation with the Institute’s Leadership Council.
“Professor Coleman embodies the values that the Lemkin Medal aims to highlight,” said Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of Duke Law School and a member of the Bolch Judicial Institute’s Advisory Board. “As a beloved teacher, a thoughtful scholar, and a fearless civil rights advocate, he has fought and inspired others to fight for justice, even when the fight requires him to stand against public sentiment and stand up to institutional power. He reminds us that we as legal professionals are obligated to ensure that every client’s rights under the Constitution are protected — no matter how loathed the client or daunting the case.”
Benjamin B. Ferencz, 2020
Benjamin B. Ferencz was born in 1920 in Transylvania (then part of Hungary, now a region in Romania). When he was 10 months old, his family moved to New York City to escape religious persecution. He became deeply interested in issues of peace and justice at a young age and studied crime prevention at City College of New York. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 115th AAA Gun Battalion, an anti-aircraft artillery unit that fought in many of the major campaigns in Europe. Then, as part of a newly created War Crimes branch, he assisted in collecting evidence for the prosecution of such crimes and visited several concentration camps, an experience he later described as having “peered into Hell.”
After he was honorably discharged from the Army in 1945, he was recruited to assist in the Nuremberg Trials, prosecuting war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. He became chief prosecutor for the United States in the Einsatzgruppen Case, “the biggest murder trial in history” according to the Associated Press. Twenty-two defendants were charged with the murder of more than one million people; all were convicted and 13 were sentenced to death. Ferencz later assisted in reparation and rehabilitation efforts for the victims of Nazi crimes, participated in negotiations that led to the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany and the first German Restitution Law in 1953, and then entered into private law practice in the United States.
He has published several books, including Defining International Aggression-The Search for World Peace (1975), An International Criminal Court-A Step Toward World Peace (1980), and Enforcing International Law-A Way to World Peace (1985), and has worked with the International Criminal Court and served as an adjunct professor at Pace University in New York. In 2009, Ferencz was awarded the Erasmus Prize, in recognition of notable contributions to European culture, society, or social science. In April 2017, The Hague renamed a footpath next to the Peace Palace as the Benjamin Ferenczpad (Benjamin Ferencz path), calling him “one of the figureheads of international justice.” Ferencz also is the subject of a documentary, Prosecuting Evil, by director Barry Avrich (available on Netflix). Learn more about Ferencz’s life and work on his website, benferencz.org.
Ferencz joined Bolch Judicial Institute Director David F. Levi and moderator Michael P. Scharf for a live interview on Oct. 12, 2020. The program was recorded and is available on YouTube.