Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

In Memoriam: Arthur T. Von Mehren

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

In Memoriam: Arthur T. Von Mehren

Article excerpt

The editors of the Harvard Law Review respectfully dedicate this issue to Professor Arthur T. von Mehren.

Daniel R. Coquillette *

"There were giants in the earth in those days." (1) Arthur Taylor von Mehren was an intellectual giant. He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Comparative Law. The citation records:

   210 publications (10 books, 4 monographs, 119 articles, 48 book
   reviews, and 29 other articles) in six languages (English, French,
   Spanish, Italian, German, and Japanese). They included his
   path-breaking Civil Law System, his pioneering two books and nine
   articles on Japanese law, his highly original Law of Multistate
   Problems, his foundational monographs on contract formation and
   form, his "law-making" articles on jurisdiction, and his
   award-winning Hague lectures. He studied law in three countries,
   taught in nine countries, lectured in many more, and has represented
   the United States for 38 years in the Hague Conference of Private
   International Law. (2)

But I remember Arthur and his life on much more intimate terms. Every year he would contribute a copy of one of his famous texts to the Harvard Law School Public Interest Auction run by our students. He inscribed each one, not knowing who would receive it: "For future resolvers of disputes."

"Resolvers of disputes!" Mary Beth Basile and I had the honor of interviewing Arthur for the Harvard Law School History Project. Brought up in Minnesota, Arthur had an exceptional family, fluent in both Danish and Norwegian, an exceptional twin brother, Robert, and an extraordinary high school German teacher, Fraulein Katz. Arthur was a brilliant linguist. As World War II approached, Arthur "even offered to learn Japanese if the Army would employ [him] in that capacity," but his bad eyesight made him unable to serve. (3) Graduating in the skeleton Harvard Law School class of 1945, he looked out on a world devastated by war.

Harvard Law School, since the appointment of Joseph Story as Dane Professor in 1829, has aspired to a "global" perspective on legal education. But by 1945 even the last vestige of comparative law, a Roman law course by James Bradley Thayer, had disappeared. Europe lay in ruins. Japan, a target of nuclear attack, was essentially destroyed. China was in civil war, and India in the last agony of colonialism. Harvard Law School was swamped by returning veterans, seeking to make up for lost years and haunted by terrible recollections.

"Resolvers of disputes!" It took extraordinary wisdom, in 1946, for the likes of Lon Luvois Fuller, Austin Wakeman Scott, and Erwin Griswold to see in a young myopic law student the future of a global Harvard Law School. But see it they did. They encouraged Arthur not only to complete his clerkship with Chief Judge Calvert Magruder, but also to complete a Harvard Ph.D. in government almost simultaneously. When Arthur was appointed to the Law School faculty, he was given an extraordinary gift: three free years to study Swiss, German, and French law at the University of Zurich and Paris! He went, by his own account, as an ignorant, humble student to the last intact universities in Europe. Within a year, he found himself the Acting Chief of the legislative branch of the Legal Division at the Office of Military Government for the United States (OMGUS) in Berlin, with twenty German lawyers working for him in the administration of occupied Germany. It was an astonishing time. "People were afraid that the Russians might very well declare war and take us captive. I even thought at times of starting to learn Russian, but I didn't have the time." (4)

This extraordinary investment in a young, unproven scholar has a message for us today. Arthur von Mehren became a cornerstone of Harvard Law School's global reputation. But at the time, it was a great act of faith, for both Arthur and the Law School. …

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