A Biography of Richard Baxter

Stephen M. Schwebel

Richard R. Baxter was born in New York City in 1921 and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980, at the age of 59. His death was tragically premature, not only because ofhis age but because it cut short, at its outset, his service as a Judge of the International Court of Justice. He sat from February 1979 to September 1980, and fell gravely ill during the spring of 1980. He took part only in the momentous case of United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran.

Judge Baxter was graduated from Brown University summa cum laude in 1942 and received an LL.B from Harvard Law School in 1948. Following wartime service as an enlisted man and officer, Baxter was in the Regular Army from 1947 to 1954. At the time of his resignation from the Army, he was Chief of the International Law Branch in the Office of the Judge Advocate General.

The Army sent Captain (shortly, Major) Baxter to Cambridge University in 1950 to work for a year with Professor H. Lauterpacht, Whewell Professor of International Law, who was widely acknowledged to be the world’s leading international legal scholar. Lauterpacht had recently revised the British Manual of Military Law while Baxter was engaged in the revision of the United States Rules of Land Warfare made necessary by the adoption of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and developments in the law of war that flowed from World War II and the Korean conflict. Baxter’s year in Cambridge was a turning point in his career. Lauterpacht became a patron of Baxter’s career as Arnold McNair had been a patron of his. He was instrumental in Baxter being appointed in 1954 to a research and teaching position at Harvard Law School which ripened into an appointment as a professor of law and the first holder of the Manley Hudson Chair of International Law. Baxter’s early articles on the law of war were published in The British Year Book ofInternational Law, then edited by Lauterpacht.

A product of Baxter’s research period at Harvard Law School was the preparation of his monograph on The Law of International Waterways. In the latter part of his twenty years of teaching at Harvard Law School, he devoted a great deal of time and effort to the writing, together with Professor Louis B. Sohn, of a study on State responsibility for the U.N. International Law Commission. Baxter’s widely published articles, comments and book reviews, not only on the law of war but also on other topics of international law such as the relationship between treaties and customary international law, were of exceptional quality.

Baxter devoted as much care to the preparation and conduct of his classes, and to the mentoring of his students, as he did to his scholarship. He taught torts and criminal law as well as international law in order to burnish his credentials both with professors and students, some of whom tended to treat international law as a subject removed from the mainstream of Harvard Law School’s concerns.

Baxter was a member of the board of editors of the American Journal of International Law for many years, and the Journal’s editor-in-chief from 1970 to 1978. He was a superb editor. He worked at it relentlessly like a jovial demon. His comments on prospective manuscripts were detailed and constructive, or dispositive, as the manuscript merited. Many an author could have listed him as a co-author, so extensive and excellent were his annotations. The meetings of the board of editors, under his cheery chairmanship, were a delight. He would distribute a list of articles he had not thought worthy of submission to other editors for analysis but had rejected on his own authority; he disposed of a hundred or more each year, in addition to his other editing work. Each entry was accompanied by a pithy dispositive comment worthy of The New Yorker magazine. The list was destroyed at the end of the meeting to avoid embarrassing those whose submissions had been rejected—an act characteristic of Baxter’s concern for the feelings of others.

For two years, while editor-in-chief of the Journal, Baxter concurrently served as President of the American Society of International Law. Among his many contributions to the Society was the lead he took in organizing a student branch of the Society. That led to the creation of the Association of Student International Law Societies, which in turn has contributed to the proliferation of the publication of student international law journals.

Baxter was the first to propose and put into operation a moot court devoted to an international legal problem. That Harvard Law School experiment was the seed of what became the Jessup Competition (named by him). He played a primary role in the conception and launching of International Legal Materials. He was a regular contributor to International Law Reports, under the editorship of Professor H. Lauterpacht and subsequently, Eli Lauterpacht. While serving as Counselor on International Law of the State Department, he was influential in the establishment of the annual Digest of United States Practice in International Law. Earlier Baxter conducted a recurrent, short and intensive course on international law for mid-level officers at the Naval War College at Newport. He assembled a band of experts from the United States and abroad, such as his great friend from his Cambridge days, Eli Lauterpacht. The seminar problems Baxter skillfully devised were demanding and the faculty and officers who participated in the Baxter short course enjoyed a stimulating intellectual experience.

Baxter distinguished himself during his year of State Department service as Counselor on International Law, and was a leading representative of the United States in the Geneva conferences that concluded the Protocols to the Geneva Conventions on the Law of War.

Baxter’s nomination in 1978 for election to the International Court of Justice was universally supported in the international law community. But it was a close thing, because President Carter, unaware of the nominating procedures prescribed by the Statute of the Court, had promised the nomination to a former Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The then Legal Adviser of the State Department made strenuous efforts to persuade the U.S. National Group to give effect to President Carter’s commitment, but the Group, responsive to the overwhelming support for Baxter in the international law community, stood firm for Baxter’s nomination. Once nominated, he was handily elected.

Had Baxter not been struck down by cancer in his 59th year, he would have served as a judge of the International Court of Justice with the distinction that had marked every phase of his career. His bitterly premature death grieved his legions of friends and admirers and deprived the Court of a great mind and great heart.

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