September 10, 2007
Legal treasure hunter
By CAROL CLARK
The first clue that David Bederman may not be your average lawyer is the 5-foot, inflatable penguin standing by his office door. The room is a jumble of books and piles of documents and toys, including a giant pink stuffed crab named “Sebastian.”
“I know where everything is,” Bederman says, as he proudly surveys the bounty of his clutter.
The Emory law professor is an authority in the law of the sea and shipwrecks, and has a colorful client list of famous sunken treasure hunters, including the excavators of the Titanic. Sitting behind his paper-strewn desk, wearing bookish, horn-rimmed glasses, Bederman doesn’t look like a defender of dashing ocean explorers.
Perils of the deep
“I love the history and lore and romance of the ocean, but I’m a total landlubber,” he admits. “My idea of sea adventure is going to the deep end of the pool. I was asked if I wanted to dive to the Titanic in a submarine that’s smaller than this office. It takes eight hours to get down and another eight hours to come up. You’re three miles down under the sea. I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
Bederman’s shipwreck work is just the tip of the iceberg. He is the director of international legal studies at the law school and has argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. His passion for history led him to write a series of books on the modern relevance of ancient laws. His focus on international environmental law drew him to become pro bono council for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, which strives to protect Antarctica’s natural resources.
“It’s happened mostly by accident,” Bederman says of his eclectic career. “As academics, we have the great gift of getting to pursue unexpected pathways.”
A native Atlantan, Bederman majored in international affairs at Princeton University, intending to become a diplomat. He continued his studies at the London School of Economics, where he happened to enroll in a course on marine law and policy, sparking his interest in a whole new field. Armed with a M.Sc. in maritime law and policy from LSE, he went on to earn his law degree from the University of Virginia. He also holds the coveted Diploma from The Hague Academy of International Law and a Ph.D. in law from the University of London.
The bell of the bar
In 1991, the year Bederman joined the Emory faculty, he saw a report about a shipwreck case. An American named Steinmetz visited a pub in England, where he was surprised to see a ship’s bell from a Civil War Confederate vessel. The CSS Alabama had roamed the Atlantic, destroying or capturing dozens of Union merchant ships, before it was sunk in action near France. “A group of English divers in the 1920s went down in helmets and hoses and picked up the bell,” Bederman explains. “In order to pay their bar tab, they gave it to the bar owner.”
Steinmetz traded his collection of antique guns for the bell and shipped it home to New Jersey. Years later, the U.S. government claimed the bell was its property, sparking the lawsuit.
“I was intrigued by the intersection of history, law and a shipwreck,” Bederman says. He picked up the phone and called Steinmetz’ attorney. He not only became involved in the case (Steinmetz ultimately lost), he went on to become one of a handful of lawyers in the world who can navigate the arcane legal realm surrounding shipwrecks.
Outrunning a hurricane
Bederman helped his client Premier Exhibitions, an Atlanta company which holds salvage rights to the Titanic, obtain an ironclad legal claim to the artifacts it has recovered from the wreck site.
Another client, Odyssey Marine Exploration, recently recovered tons of silver, gold and other artifacts from a Colonial-era shipwreck, code named “Black Swan,” in international waters of the Atlantic. The Spanish government is challenging Odyssey’s claims to the bounty, on the grounds that the wreck may have contained Spanish royal treasures.
“We’re caught in the middle of a very delicate situation,” says Bederman, who also sits on Odyssey’s board of directors. “The truth about shipwreck salvaging is nobody cares what you do until you find something. Then, everyone wants a piece of it.”
In August of 2005, Bederman traveled to New Orleans for the opening of an exhibit of artifacts that Odyssey had recovered from the SS Republic. The steamship was bound from New York to New Orleans in 1866 when it sank in a hurricane off the coast of Georgia. Odyssey staged the exhibit on the New Orleans’ waterfront.
“The mayor cut the ribbon at noon, and at 1:30, they came to tell us to start evacuating,” Bederman says. “Getting out of New Orleans just before Katrina hit was one of those interesting experiences in life.”
People who make their living as treasure salvors are “a different breed,” Bederman says. “It’s ridiculously speculative. You have to have a passion for it. This isn’t about making widgets. It’s history in the making, it’s adventure.”
The gold, silver and jewels treasure hunters find are “all lovely,” he adds, but it’s the stories they bring up from the past that are the real reward. Among the shipwreck artifacts he owns, he especially prizes three bottles sitting on his mantle, which 150 years ago held medicine bitters, pickles and mustard.
“In many areas of the world, the sea bed is littered with shipwrecks that can tell you a lot about ancient commerce and ways of life,” says Bederman, who is working on a book about previous eras of globalization. “We assume, arrogantly, that the globalization we’re going through now is somehow unique.”
Supreme Court sherpa
While Bederman has not set foot on the deck of a salvage vessel at sea, he has stood before the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court — a high adventure of many a lawyer’s dreams. His first such case occurred in 1993, when he was contacted by the widow of a carpenter who had gone to Antarctica to work on a U.S. base.
“One afternoon, he and two of his buddies decided to take a stroll,” Bederman explains. “They thought they were on a marked path, but they fell through the ice and died.”
The widow sued the U.S. government, claiming it was negligent. The U.S. government countered that because the incident occurred in a foreign country it could not be sued, due to a waiver in the law.
“My argument was that Antarctica is not a country at all,” Bederman says. “Chief Justice Rehnquist looked down at me and said, ‘But, son, it is foreign!’”
Bederman lost, 8–1. “I was under-prepared,” he says. “Now when I argue before the Supreme Court, I prepare for a month in advance and I do a lot of practice sessions.”
He’s become so good at it that he’s in demand as a trainer for other lawyers facing the highest court in the land. “It’s what I call being a sherpa, the Nepalese natives who take mountain climbers to the summit of Everest,” he says. “The Supreme Court is a very challenging, intimidating experience.”
Sailing across boundaries
While his students benefit from the treasure chest of experiences he brings to the classroom, Bederman taps students to help him develop case strategies and tactics. “If it doesn’t enrich my teaching and scholarship, I don’t do it,” he says of his extracurricular activities.
He also taps the expertise of faculty from Emory’s broad range of resources: from classics, to history to public health and political science. “What I do cuts across so many boundaries,” he says. “Emory has been a wonderful place for me.”
His whole family is now engaged in the scholarly life: His wife, Lorre Cuzze, also a lawyer, recently entered graduate studies in health policy the Rollins School of Public Health, where she is the oldest member of her class. The couple’s 17-year-old daughter, Annelise, is a junior in high school.
‘A fun day’
One of Bederman’s most gratifying experiences, both as a lawyer and as a teacher, was a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court case. A Kennesaw State University professor had an employee grievance, but the school said it could not be sued because it is a state entity. Bederman argued before the bench on behalf of the professor and won, 9–0.
“The decision came down on the day of graduation,” Bederman says. As members of the student team that helped him win the case lined up for their diplomas, he presented them with copies of the decision, and invited the students and their families to a party at his home, so the client could shake their hands and thank them.
“That was a fun day,” Bederman says, smiling with the bliss of someone who’s found a cache of gold.