Keith Center for Civil Rights director plans to focus on Detroit issues

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by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Not many law professors have experienced a military coup in a foreign country.

  Peter Hammer, a professor at Wayne State University Law School since 2003, is one.

In 1997 Hammer flew to Cambodia for an annual meeting of the Advisory Council of Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC), where he served as president. He also planned to meet six law students working as interns in the program that has offices in Phnom Penh and three provinces.

Instead, Hammer – along with LAC officials and other foreign nationals – took refuge in the Golden Gate Hotel, only couple of miles from firefights. After many people were safely evacuated out of the country, Hammer stayed longer, eventually flying to Bangkok to meet the Southeast Asian Bureau chief of the program’s largest funder.

A decade later, Hammer returned under much less harrowing circumstances. In 2007, he was Visiting Professor at the Center for Khmer Studies, teaching in its Capacity Building in Cambodian Higher Education program focusing on rights of religious and ethnic minorities.

Hammer, now chair of the Board of the Life & Hope Association, an organization for orphans and vulnerable children run by Buddhists monks in Cambodia, also was honored in 1994 with a Pro Bono Service Award from the International Human Rights Law Group in D.C. for his work with the Cambodian Defender’s Project.

Founder and Director of the Program for Cambodian Law & Development at the University of Michigan Law School, Hammer has written and presented extensively on Cambodia. Writings include Competition Law in Cambodia  and Living on the Margins: Minorities and Borderlines in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.

Hammer, who earned bachelor degrees in mathematics, economics and speech communication from Gonzaga University in his native Spokane, is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Joint J.D./Ph.D. Program in Law and Economics.

He clerked for the Hon. Alfred T. Goodwin at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit before practicing for two years at O’Melveny and Myers in Los Angeles, where he focused on antitrust and health care law, assisted with economic analysis of cases, and joined the legal team defending Exxon after the 1989 Valdez oil spill.

Hammer now directs the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne Law. For someone who has spent his life fighting for justice, equality and human rights, he says the transition is seamless. Drawing from his international background, he has a broad view of civil rights. 

“Education in Detroit has to be viewed as a civil rights issue,” he says. “The children growing up in Detroit have a right to a quality education. They have a right to decent health care. They have a right to basic opportunity. They have a right to have hope in their future.”

Hammer has added a new seminar to the Law School curriculum, “Advanced Topics in Community Development: Institutions, Law & Society,” with a focus on the social issues facing Detroit. The class blends contemporary theories of structural racism with the teachings of modern institutional economics. These lessons are applied to issues such as education reform, transportation, regionalism, access to credit, abandoned property and resizing the city. 

“Some of the best thinking about the future of Detroit is happening at Wayne Law,” he says.

Hammer’s inspiration comes from his students and from Judge Keith. “Our students are our greatest assets at Wayne,” he says. “The judge is not only a civil rights icon, he is a daily example of a life well lived.
“Sometimes you have to go half way around the world before coming home. The future lies in Detroit.”