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December 17, 2008

Professor at the Helm: Michael Sturley charts a new course for international maritime law and steers successful Supreme Court Clinic

Photo of Michael Sturley
Professor Michael F. Sturley at the United States Supreme Court

For sixteen years, University of Texas law professor Michael Sturley has spent countless hours quietly working on an ambitious project: negotiating and drafting a new convention to govern international shipping. Although he has generally worked behind the scenes, Professor Sturley’s strong leadership and influence in the development of maritime law have not gone unnoticed.

Contributions to Maritime Law

In September, American Maritime Cases (AMC), a leading maritime-law publication, dedicated its seventeenth, five-year digest to Sturley for his outstanding contributions to the field. Every five years, since its founding in 1923, AMC has honored prominent industry leaders, primarily federal judges and attorneys. Sturley, in his twenty-fifth year at the School of Law, is only the second full-time academic to receive this distinction.

New York maritime attorney Chester D. Hooper said the dedication was timely because the U.N. Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) just completed its Convention on Contracts for the International Carriage of Goods Wholly or Partly by Sea. Sturley began working on a predecessor domestic project in 1992 and has been centrally involved ever since.

The new convention not only updates international regimes written decades ago but also unifies aspects of transport law that international agreements never addressed. While the United States adheres to its aging Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA), other countries follow a variety of different maritime codes. In recent years, this breakdown in uniformity has caused commercial problems.

“With Professor Sturley’s tremendous work on this convention, he’s helping to unify the world’s maritime law,” said Hooper, past president of the U.S. Maritime Law Association.

The AMC dedication cites other aspects of Sturley’s expertise in admiralty and Supreme Court practice: “Michael has been influential in the development of maritime law through his teaching and lecturing, his scholarly yet practical publications, and his participation in many of the leading appellate cases in recent years, particularly at the U.S. Supreme Court.” The dedication illustrated the impact of Sturley’s scholarship by noting three federal circuit courts’ reliance on one of his articles to limit or reject a doctrine he had challenged. AMC also praised Sturley for his work in Supreme Court maritime cases, including five in which he played a significant role persuading the Court to grant certiorari.

Sturley, who will formally receive the AMC award in New York next May, said he’s honored to be included among the luminaries who have received this distinction. He noted the honor was unexpected. “The people I work with appreciate my contributions, but much of what I do is quiet, behind-the scenes work. I’m never sure if anyone in the larger community has any idea what I do, let alone appreciates it.”

With Sturley playing a key role, the U.S. delegation was at the center of the UNCITRAL negotiations. The completed convention—which addresses major changes in the industry such as the development of electronic commerce and the shipping of goods in containers—was approved by the U.N. General Assembly in December. The convention’s formal signing, which Sturley plans to attend, is set for September 2009 in Rotterdam.

In the past sixteen years, Sturley has served as the reporter on the U.S. Maritime Law Association’s committee that drafted a proposal to amend COGSA, as the rapporteur for the Comité Maritime International committee that prepared a preliminary draft of the new convention for UNCITRAL, as the senior advisor on the U.S. delegation to the UNCITRAL Working Group that negotiated and drafted the final convention, and as a member of the UNCITRAL Secretariat’s expert group that assisted and advised the Secretariat during the process.

Sturley traveled frequently to Vienna and New York to attend formal meetings with representatives from sixty countries. But most of the real work took place between sessions and through informal negotiations during lunch, coffee breaks, and late evenings. “Much of the work is simply not in the public record at all. Small groups hammered out the negotiations, prepared the drafts, and figured out what compromises would work.”

Sturley generally served as the U.S. spokesperson on substantive maritime law issues, providing invaluable advice and leadership to the delegation. “Everyone I asked said that Michael Sturley was the leading U.S. (and perhaps the world) expert in this area, and that he would be a key member of the delegation. They were right,” said Mary Helen Carlson, a State Department attorney who assembled and led the U.S. delegation.

“This is a highly complex, technical subject with a long history. Many countries’ delegates did not have much background in this area. Everyone came to rely on Michael,” Carlson said. “Of course, he represented the United States, and therefore was always advocating the U.S. position on an issue. But everyone trusted him, and looked to him to give a fair, balanced, and accurate explanation of any issue.” Carlson added that she often called Sturley the “intellectual spark plug” of the convention.

Carlson noted that on a personal level, Sturley was generous with his time and expertise and was a great teacher to all the delegates. “He treats everybody with respect and friendliness” including delegates from rich countries and poor countries, developed countries and developing countries, and countries that agreed and disagreed with the United States in the negotiation, she said. “He has a wonderful ability to work with everybody.”

Tomotaka Fujita, the head of the Japanese delegation, said UNCITRAL colleagues often exclaimed with admiration that the American professor could explain other delegates’ confusing statements. “Michael is one of the rare experts who can explain complicated issues in transport law so clearly that even a layman with little knowledge can understand,” said Fujita. “Michael is no doubt one of a handful of people in the world who knows every detail of this important international instrument.”

Not surprisingly, Sturley has written several law review articles (including for the Texas International Law Journal) about UNCITRAL’s transport law project. In the coming year, he will coauthor (with delegates from Japan and the Netherlands) a treatise that will serve as a guide to the new convention. He is also scheduled to teach a seminar on the subject in Spring 2009. He said students will read the UNCITRAL public records, but they will also hear about the behind-the-scenes negotiations. “I can tell them where these compromises really came from and the motivations behind them.”

Supreme Court Clinic

Before joining the law faculty in 1984, Sturley clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and practiced with Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City. As a professor, he has written many articles on admiralty law and was instrumental, along with UT Law professor and admiralty expert David Robertson, in establishing the annual Judge John R. Brown Admiralty Moot Court Competition fifteen years ago. But as his colleagues point out, Sturley’s expertise and contributions to the Law School go well beyond admiralty and maritime law.

Sturley also teaches and writes in the areas of property, commercial law, and Supreme Court practice. Three years ago, he founded the Law School’s Supreme Court Clinic with attorney David Frederick, a 1989 graduate of the Law School who regularly argues cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The UT Supreme Court Clinic has been wildly successful, both pedagogically and with respect to the outcome of its cases,” said UT Law professor Lynn Blais, also a codirector of the Clinic. She noted that Clinic students have the opportunity to work directly, under faculty supervision, on cert petitions, amicus briefs, and merits briefs for submission to the Supreme Court, which is an opportunity that many practicing attorneys never have.

“Beginning with one case, in which cert was granted, the Clinic has grown under Michael’s direction to the point where it has many active cases at varying stages of litigation, offering students unparalleled experience in high-stakes practice. Michael’s vision in creating the Clinic, and his commitment to its development, have made a tremendous impact on the students who enroll, as well as the clients they serve,” Blais said.

Scott Keller, a 2007 UT Law graduate, is familiar with the lasting impression that Sturley and the Clinic can make in one’s legal experience. Keller, who worked on the clinic’s successful first case, said Sturley was always willing to spend extra time with students to give them the constructive feedback needed to become effective writers. Sturley also imparted his knowledge of Supreme Court litigation to his students “through a patient style of teaching that encourages students every step of the way.” Keller will clerk for Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2009–2010.

Sturley also had a profound influence in the life and career of his Clinic codirector Frederick, who as a law student worked as Sturley’s research assistant. “He’s been a loyal and supportive friend to me for more than two decades, as his role has changed from mentor to collaborator,” Frederick said. “As a teacher, Michael could be maddeningly thorough, walking carefully through each proposition until reaching the conclusion. As a Supreme Court practitioner, he approaches problem solving with a keen understanding of how the Court works and a strategic sense of where the Court will go.”

Clinic students every year have had the opportunity to attend an oral argument in Washington, D.C., at the Supreme Court. On December 1, students heard Frederick argue an age discrimination case that the Clinic is handling. Sturley is also frequently consulted in Supreme Court cases outside of the clinic context, often for his rare combination of Supreme Court and maritime expertise. His clients have ranged from impecunious seamen to some of the world’s largest and most profitable corporations.

Friends and colleagues describe Sturley as a very accomplished man who is devoted to his wife, Michele Deitch, a criminal justice policy expert and attorney who teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and his daughters, Jennifer and Elizabeth. His effective leadership style is often tied to his other personal attributes, such as extreme intelligence, self-discipline, hard work, enthusiasm, generosity, and patience. For all of his successes, however, Sturley remains modestly unaffected. “He’s the premier scholar worldwide in the field of maritime commerce,” Frederick said. “I had the rare opportunity once to dine with admiralty scholars from around the world and, to a person, they spoke of Michael’s giant contributions. From his modesty, one would never sense his stature as an international legal superstar.”

Robertson agreed. “Picture John Wayne with a law book,” he said. “Shipping lawyers worldwide understand that Michael knows more about cargo law than anyone else. Specialists in U.S. Supreme Court practice are aware that Michael understands how and when to seek or oppose certiorari. But Michael does not publicize these attributes to his maximum advantage. If he were a self-proclaiming man, he’d be immensely rich by now.”

Sturley is driven not by the limelight but by a passion for international issues, which he said was nurtured growing up in a household that hosted foreign graduate students every year. He gained his interest in maritime law while attending Oxford University, where the brightest law students were encouraged to study international trade. Another turning point in his career path was clerking for Justice Powell. “If it hadn’t been for that Supreme Court clerkship, it’s much less likely that I’d have an interest in Supreme Court litigation, and the experience to enable me to do it.”

This article is an updated version of one which originally appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of UT Law magazine.

Related links:

Michael Sturley faculty profile

Supreme Court Clinic

Supreme Persuasion

Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or