Alumnus of the Month October 2011

David Stewart '76

Visiting Professor of Law and Director of the Global Law Scholars Program, Georgetown University Law Center

Professor David Stewart ’76 likes to begin his seminars at the Georgetown Law Center by challenging his students to name one area of modern legal practice that does not intersect with international law. Commercial Law? Family law? Litigation? The idea is to help them understand that international law has direct relevance to almost every area of modern legal practice.

“People are concerned right now about how U.S. Courts should deal with international law,” says Stewart. “There’s even a movement to preclude judges from taking into account foreign law.”

His point to the students is on one level a practical rebuttal to such provincial thinking. But for Stewart, the director of Georgetown’s Global Law Scholars Program, the exercise also reflects his larger mission to join with a vanguard of legal educators to make international law a core component of the American law school curriculum.

The success of their effort represents a significant pedagogical shift from the late 1960s when Stewart matriculated through Princeton and then Yale Law School with what he describes as a burning, though inchoate, desire to practice international law. The elite law schools at that time certainly had a tradition of producing icons of the American foreign policy establishment from Secretary of War Henry Stimson to President of the World Bank John J. McCloy. Yet international law wasn’t considered part of the mainstream of legal training.

Indeed, Stewart was so hungry for international experience at Yale that he enrolled in a concurrent masters program in international relations with an eye towards a State Department posting.  However, there were no openings at State when he graduated in 1971. So he followed what was then the traditional path for aspiring international lawyers to Wall Street, where he worked at the now defunct white shoe firm of Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine.

Donovan, though, was hardly a diplomatic training ground. Quite the opposite, Stewart worked in commercial law and antitrust litigation.  So, in 1972 Stewart enrolled in NYU’s LL.M program in International Legal Studies.

Stewart was attracted to the program on the strength of the faculty. In particular he saw in Professor Thomas Franck—whose expertise spanned post-colonial legal systems, the international implications of national constitutions and the use force--a model for an international legal career that was at once expansive and influential.

Stewart attended night classes as a part-time student and took three years to earn the degree. His commitment was rewarded in 1976, when he was hired as Attorney Advisor at the State Department.  There he joined a small, 50-member team of attorneys who were charged with representing the full breadth of the American foreign policy portfolio, which at the time spanned the Cold War, Vietnam and the oil crisis.

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” recalls Stewart, noting that the scope of the job was at once exhilarating and scary. “The work was intense, the staff was thin and you had to be ready because in many cases you were the only lawyer in the room representing the United States to the world.”

Stewart quickly learned that the first challenge of working as an attorney at State was getting used to being thrown into highly complex and specialized negotiations on issues with which he had little experience.  For starters he was tasked in 1977 with negotiating the end of the American trusteeship of the Marshall Islands, which the US had overseen since the end of World War II.  The difficulty and stakes of the work increased from there when, in 1979, he and a colleague were charged with establishing a tribunal in The Hague to settle thousands of private sector contract and expropriation disputes with the post-revolutionary Iranian government.

The tribunal was the largest of its kind ever established.  “This was a job that no one could have been trained for,” says Stewart. “It was hugely stressful with billions of dollars in clams at stake.” He devoted six years to the project, an effort that ultimately yielded the Office of International Claims and Investment Disputes, which has gone on to arbitrate disputes in the aftermath of conflicts in Ethiopia and Iraq. 

In 1986 Stewart was asked to counsel the State Department’s human rights portfolio. “I had never even taken a course in human rights law, because when I went to law school no such courses existed.”

One of Stewart’s responsibilities was to work on obtaining Senate advice and consent to ratification on the United Nations Convention Against Torture. That task pulled into relief a second major challenge of his work at the State Department: He had to anticipate the future legal ramifications of the treaty in U.S. domestic law. 

In this instance that meant identifying scenarios in which actions by domestic law enforcement authorities might be challenged as violating the treaty. This question would come to pose global political implications under the second Bush administration when Department of Justice lawyer John Yoo argued that American use of waterboarding during interrogations of suspected terrorists did not amount to torture. 
 
Stewart says he never gave serious thought to the possibility that the U.S. government would openly argue that it was legal for American agents to torture the enemy.  The reason? He was entirely focused on what he considered the most likely scenarios in which U.S. law would allow for Americans to be found in violation of the agreement. For him that meant looking at the potential for civil rights violations in local municipalities where the federal government had limited oversight.

Over the next two decades Stewart would help negotiate issues as far-reaching and legally diverse as ceasefires in Sudan, women’s rights with Hillary Clinton in China and the United Nations Convention on Sovereign Immunity. Yet he turned down opportunities for international postings, preferring to remain in Washington with his wife, a practicing OBGYN, and his four children.

He retired from the State Department in 2008 when Georgetown offered him a fulltime faculty position and the opportunity to direct the Global Law Scholars Program.  The aim of the program is to prepare students to handle problems or resolve disputes that involve more than one legal system. More personally, he says, “I’m trying to pull all this experience together to see if it all makes any sense.”