Louis Henkin: An Extraordinary Professor and Colleague

Louis Henkin: An Extraordinary Professor and Colleague

[Sean D. Murphy is the Patricia Roberts Harris Research Professor of Law, George Washington University Law School]

I recall that Louis Henkin’s first-year constitutional law course at Columbia Law School was unique in that he assigned extraordinarily short reading assignments. While at first that seemed a blessing to an overburdened student, it became readily apparent that he expected you to read every single word (perhaps twice!) for meaning, rather than speed-read your way to a hasty (and probably misguided) conclusion.

In upper-level courses on human rights, Lou was a complete master, able to advance an exceptional vision for how the law can and should protect human dignity, but always with a strong sense of the practical problems encountered outside the walls of the classroom. When he co-taught seminars with eminent experts in the field, everyone wanted Lou to advise on their papers, leaving him pleading with students at least to consider tutelage under his co-teacher.

As the editor-in-chief of the international law review, I would often seek out Lou’s advice on articles under consideration. He was typically generous with his time, though I do recall bringing to him a piece on compensation for expropriation right at the time when that issue was of great controversy in the draft Restatement, and Lou all but threw me out of his office in exasperation! All told, I entered Columbia uncertain about whether a career in international law made sense, but under Lou’s influence (and that of Oscar Schachter and Richard Gardner) the decision was easy.

Lou was, of course, a very strong proponent of international law, devoting much of his scholarship to upholding values and norms embedded within the system. Yet he also had a strong sense of the rule of law at the national level, and he had little doubts about what to do when the two conflicted. A few years after graduating from law school, I returned for a banquet, and told Lou that I was working in the State Department Office of the Legal Adviser on politico-military affairs. The principal issue of the day was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and whether President Bush should seek authorization from Congress to use military force against Iraq, knowing that Congress was very closely divided over the issue. I spoke with Lou about the difficulties in organizing a multinational coalition to stop what was clearly wrongful aggression if Congress also had to be involved in the decision-making. He was not impressed, stating firmly that Congress must authorize the action. I pressed him: “What if Congress declines to authorize it?” He responded that the President could not proceed. I pressed further: “But what if the President proceeds anyway, in order to stop the aggression?” He then looked me straight in the eye and said: “Then the President should be impeached.” In a world of confusion and grey areas, Lou tended to see the bright lines.

In the years that followed, I continued to benefit from him in so many ways: as a colleague on the Board of Editors of the American Journal; as a co-author; as a consumer of his continued scholarship. The era of great post-WWII scholars in international law is now ending and I fear that we are all the worse off for it.

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International Human Rights Law
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