Making academics work for good
“It is really wonderful to see your students applying their legal training to serve their communities.”
Anthony O’Rourke says one of the things he really enjoys about teaching is serving as an informal mentor to students. “It is really wonderful to see your students applying their legal training to serve their communities,” says O’Rourke, who joined the UB Law faculty last fall as an associate professor
For example, he says, one of his students at Columbia Law School, where he earned the JD and where he serves as an associate in law, started tutoring public high school students interested in law. “To see your students sharing their education with others, that is really satisfying,” he says.
As a teacher of legal research and writing at Columbia, O’Rourke says he works with students “not only on the mechanics of legal writing, but on how legal reasoning works, how to interpret statutes and how to engage in arguments based on case law and precedent. This allows students to think deeply about the questions they confront in their substantive law classes. It’s a tool for the rest of their law school education.”
O’Rourke, who grew up near Detroit, pursued a double major in economics and philosophy at the University of Michigan, where he graduated with high honors. He then spent two years in Washington as a research assistant at the International Monetary Fund, working on issues related to human rights, labor rights and gender mainstreaming as they intersected with the IMF’s economic mission. Interacting with officials at United Nations agencies, labor unions and non-governmental organizations, he says, helped him to understand better the dynamics of political institutions and the complicated dimensions of economic policy debates.
After law school, O’Rourke worked in litigation practice at the New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. In addition to handling securities fraud and actuarial malpractice matters, he worked pro bono on a Guantanamo detainee case and on a Texas death penalty case involving a mentally retarded defendant. “I saw the work that a defense counsel has to do to protect a client’s interests,” he says.
O’Rourke also clerked for a U.S. District Court judge in Philadelphia. “We had a lot of criminal cases on the docket and to be exposed to the criminal justice system from that perspective was fascinating.” He also clerked for a judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, Calif., before returning to Columbia Law School to teach and conduct research.
That research, now continuing at UB, studies the intersection of criminal procedure and structural constitutional law. “I’m very interested in how political and institutional structures affect the scope of the rights we enjoy, particularly in the area of criminal procedure. To understand how constitutional doctrine evolves, I think it is necessary to examine how the institutions that make constitutional law operate in practice.”
O’Rourke says Buffalo reminds him of his hometown, Detroit, in both “the challenges the city faces and what’s exciting about the city. What strikes me about Buffalo,” he says, “is the extent to which the Law School community is engaged in work that’s important to improving the city. The students here have so much potential to have an impact on what’s happening around them.”
O’Rourke is married to Christine Varnado, a visiting assistant professor of global gender studies at UB.