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Professor David J. Bederman: In Memoriam

Professor David J. Bederman

Professor David J. Bederman

I just learned today that my old friend, Professor David J. Bederman, died on December 4. David was a brilliant and prolific scholar of international law at Emory University Law School. We first met over a quarter of a Century ago, when we were both students at the University of Virginia. David was a great person– a world-renowned scholar, a fantastic teacher, and an extraordinarily nice human being. He took international law in new directions and understood the importance of going beyond the traditional paradigms. And he was so young. At 50, he had accomplished more than many legal scholars— and could have done so much more. My prayers go out to his wife and daughter and parents.

Emory Law School recently published the following obituary:

The Emory Law community mourns the loss of David J. Bederman, K. H. Gyr Professor of Private International Law, on Sunday, December 4. Bederman was 50.

During his 20 years at Emory, Bederman taught courses and seminars on international law, torts, admiralty, international institutions, law of international common spaces, legal methods, legislation and regulation, customary law, international environmental law and foreign relations power. He served as advisor to the Emory International Law Review and was director of international legal studies. He established the Supreme Court Advocacy Project at the law school, and he also was an Associated Faculty Member of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

Professor Bederman held degrees from Paideia, Princeton University, the University of London, the University of Virginia School of Law and The Hague Academy of International Law. He also held a score of distinguished appointments to boards of journals, NGOs, a publicly traded corporation and various governmental committees.

Bederman’s mind was a storehouse of knowledge on legal history, constitutional law, admiralty and international law. He coupled that knowledge with a distinct capacity and passion to explore challenging legal questions ranging from how custom provides the basis for modern law to who owns the personal artifacts of the H.M.S. Titanic.

Bederman’s defense of Premier Exhibitions, an Atlanta company that held the salvage rights to the Titanic, helped him become one of a handful of lawyers in the world who could navigate the arcane legal realm surrounding shipwrecks. While he turned down the chance to see the Titanic wreckage in person, he was honored for his work on this and related admiralty cases by receiving a Mel Fisher Lifetime Achievement Award in Key West.

“As academics, we have the great gift of getting to pursue unexpected pathways. I love the history and lore and romance of the ocean, but I’m a total landlubber,” Bederman said in a 2007 interview about his turning down an invitation to visit the sunken Titanic. “My idea of sea adventure is going to the deep end of the pool.”

“David’s record of scholarly achievement was impressive to the point of being improbable,” said Interim Dean Robert Schapiro. Bederman was the author of 12 books and 125 articles, and he presented more than 80 public lectures at distinguished universities and learned societies in North America and Europe. He also held distinguished visiting professorships at New York University, the University of Toronto, and University of Virginia.

Bederman was counsel of record in 52 cases in the United States Courts of Appeals, and he argued four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. His first case before the U.S. Supreme Court involved torts liability standards in the Antarctic.

Interim Dean Schapiro read a portion of the transcript from the argument of that first case during his introduction of Bederman for the inaugural David J. Bederman Lecture in September. During the argument, Bederman found himself with a few minutes remaining at the end of questioning by the justices. He did what few other attorneys would: he stopped talking.

The transcript reads:

Mr. Bederman: “I have no further substantive points.”

Question: Do you have any non-substantive points?”

Mr. Bederman: “I will not rise to that invitation, Chief Justice.”

“David knew that there is a time to speak and a time to sit down,” Schapiro said. “This maxim applied to his style of quiet leadership at Emory, where he served on numerous committees and panels. When David chose to speak, everyone knew it was time to listen.”

In 2011, Emory Law established the David J. Bederman Distinguished Lecture, along with a summer fellowship at The Hague Academy of International Law, in honor of Bederman’s career and accomplishments. These new offerings were made possible by the generous gifts of his colleagues, students, friends and family.

Prior to joining the faculty at Emory Law, Bederman practiced law in Washington, D.C., with Covington & Burling and worked as a legal advisor at the Iran/United States Claims Tribunal at The Hague.

Of his most recent book, Custom as a Source of Law, published by Cambridge University Press in October 2010, The Harvard Law Review wrote: “Although Professor Bederman’s vision of custom is familiar in many ways—he adheres to the traditional view that custom involves both objective and subjective components—his contribution is nonetheless significant in its delineation of the jurisprudential and practical factors that explain custom’s staying power.”

Bederman is survived by his wife, Lorre Cuzze, and their daughter, Annelise Bederman, as well as by his parents, Sanford and Jolayne Bederman.

A memorial service for Professor Bederman is scheduled in Cannon Chapel of Emory University on Tuesday, December 13, at 12:30 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations to be made in Professor Bederman’s memory to the Patient Assistance Fund at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University or to the laboratory of Dr. H. Richard Alexander Jr., professor of research and associate chairman for clinical research at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.