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Righting human wrongs

USC Gould School of Law • August 11, 2023
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Holocaust and human rights scholar Michael Bazyler (JD 1978) takes international approach to scholarship, teaching

By Matthew Kredell

As a renowned scholar on the Holocaust and human rights at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, Michael Bazyler (JD 1978) takes a global approach to developing the next generation of lawyers.

Motivated in part by his parents’ experience fleeing Nazi persecution and moving to America as refugees when he was a child, Bazyler travels across the Atlantic to teach — and learn — important lessons about human rights. After a three-year break due to the pandemic, he is bringing American law students to Germany again as part of the “Nuremberg to the Hague” summer program at Chapman University, demonstrating for students how prosecuting Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials established modern international criminal law.

He believes prospective lawyers need to be aware that the law can be used both to protect human rights and enable some of the worst human rights violations. It’s one of the reasons he is a student again, working toward his PhD at the University of Englangen-Nuremberg.

“What I try to show, and this is a cautionary tale for my law students, is that your law degree does not immunize you from doing evil,” Bazyler says. “In fact, it makes it more possible to be part of the machinery of evil because the legal analyses and methodology we teach can be used to provide a legal veneer for mass atrocities, including genocide. Without Nazi law enacted by German lawyers, there would be no Holocaust.”

Bazyler explores how lawyers made the Holocaust possible in his thesis, and expects to complete his PhD in 2024. A colleague, Christoph Safferling, director of the Nuremberg Academy at the University of Englangen-Nuremberg and a scholar in criminal law and international criminal law, is his thesis advisor.

In another international effort, Bazyler organizes Chapman law students to assist Ukranian refugees seeking shelter in the United States — a personal matter, as his mother was forced to flee Ukraine from the Nazis as a teenager.

Bazyler’s international human rights work extends beyond the classroom. In 1982, when he was starting out as an associate professor at Whittier Law College, Bazyler and his USC Gould classmate Scott Wellman (JD 1978) set a legal precedent with Siderman v. Republic of Argentina (1996), which stipulates that U.S. courts have jurisdiction over countries that commit human rights abuses back home while doing business with the U.S.

“Forty years ago, when Mike told me he wanted to sue a foreign nation for human rights violations committed on its own citizens, I told him ‘You’re crazy, a U.S. court has no jurisdiction over these matters!’” Wellman says. “I was wrong. [The case] springboarded Mike into an illustrious and distinguished career where he is recognized as a foremost authority in global human rights redress.”

Bazyler says his Gould education inspires him as a scholar and educator. He credits then-Dean Dorothy Nelson for his clerkship with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals immediately after graduation, which led him to become a scholar and professor. Professor and later Dean Scott Bice recommended him for his first teaching job at Loyola Law School.

“Everything that I do stems from my education at USC Gould and the incredible professors that both taught me and motivated me to do this work,” Bazyler says. “My goal is to be the kind of professor and mentor to my students that they were to me.”

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