In Memory of David J. Bederman
David J. Bederman, K. H. Gyr Professor in Private International Law, died Dec. 4 after a seven-year battle with cancer.
Emory University School of Law has lost a true gentleman and a truly gentle man. David was consummately elegant and polite, modest and measured, loyal and faithful, bold and brave. With David there were no empty words or wasted motion, no self-glory or self-pity, no bathos or pathos. Even in the face of the ample adversity he faced in his later years, he was always kind and concerned for others; he was always steady, sure, deter- mined and fearless.
We have lost a brilliant scholar, teacher and advocate. Armed with degrees from Paideia, Princeton, the London School of Economics, the University of Virginia and The Hague Academy of International Law, David burst onto the Emory Law scene two decades ago. He already had gained ample momentum from practicing law at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., and at the Iran/United States Claims Tribunal in The Hague. When he got to Emory, he set off on a blistering pace that rapidly won him promotion, tenure and then a prestigious endowed chair.
David loved to teach, and more than 4,000 students over the years ﬂocked to his 15 courses and seminars. He had exquisite gifts at the lectern and as a mentor and faculty advisor to the Emory International Law Review. He won both the Ben F. Johnson Faculty Excellence Award from the law school and the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award from the University. Such was his love of the classroom that he insisted on teaching even through his last semester, somehow summoning the strength to teach despite enormous pain and growing fragility.
David loved to litigate, which he did brilliantly, especially in admiralty and constitutional law cases, where his work was his record as an advocate and litigator. He shared these gifts and opportunities with his law students, too, draw- ing them into his research and brief writing, and helping establish the new Supreme Court Advocacy Project at the law school.
And David loved to write — 12 books and 125 articles all told. In a slow year, he wrote four or ﬁve articles, in a good year, seven or eight articles along with a new book. His books on international law, admiralty and international claims are standard sources in classrooms and courtrooms across the country. His monograph on Classical Canons in a tour de force in legal reasoning, legal rhetoric and legal hermeneutics.
His trio of Cambridge University Press monographs — Custom as a Source of Law (2010), The Classical Foundations of the American Constitution (2008) and International Law in Antiquity (2001) — have transformed our scholarly understanding of the historical and theoretical foundations of international and constitutional law. His sterling academic reputation also won him coveted editorial seats on various leading law journals, notably the American Journal of International Law, the Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce and the Journal of the History of International Law.
To honor their distinguished colleague, the faculty at Emory Law recently established the David J. Bederman Fund with generous contributions from David’s family, colleagues, students and alumni/ae. The fund will support a distinguished lectureship and student fellowship program. As it grows, the fund will eventually also support a David J. Bederman Professorship in International Law.
On Sept. 26, David delivered the inaugural David J. Bederman Lecture at the law school to a standing-room-only audience. He set out the most improbable thesis: that custom — that inchoate, messy, indeterminate gaggle of practices called custom — is still a vital source of law today, and can trump even American constitutional law at certain points. Before he launched into his argument, he delivered my favorite line in his whole lecture: “Doubt me, and let me convince you.” And, of course, by the end, even the greatest skeptics in the audience were nodding.
In many ways, this one choice line —“Doubt me, and let me convince you”— was a maxim for all of David’s life. He did not deal in pride or pretension. He did not push to the front of the line nor ask often for the ﬂoor. He rarely showed angst or exertion, pain or exhaustion. He treated everyone as his peer, no matter what their station or vocation in life. It was thus easy to overlook him, to underestimate him, to think him an easy match. That was just how David liked it. Not only was this the becoming modesty of the Southern gentleman he was. It was also, conveniently, the brilliant strategy of a man whose mind and pen were distinguished comparativist, he knew the best way to learn more about our law, culture and beliefs was to see them through the eyes of another culture or civilization wholly different from our own.
We sorely miss this bold and brave young man at Emory Law. We will honor his memory best if we carry on with the great work that he so ably undertook in his brilliant but brief career, particularly in the ﬁelds of international law, admiralty law and legal history, where he made monumental contributions.
John C. Witte Jr. is Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law, Alonzo L. McDonald Family Distinguished Professor, and director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion.