PROFILE IN BRIEF: Brad Roth - Globe trotter

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Brad Roth, a professor of political science and law at Wayne State University who specializes in international law, has made countries as varied as the Netherlands, Bosnia, Nicaragua, and Taiwan familiar haunts; has taught in Russia, Croatia and Finland; and given presentations in England, Germany, Israel, and Canada, among others.

"It's been great to develop connections to such places and to so many colleagues around the world," he says.

On 10 trips over the last 12 years, Roth and his colleagues have taken more than 100 Wayne undergrad and grad students to the former Yugoslavia for an interdisciplinary short course on ethnic conflict.

"It's been a privilege to see how formative an experience the course has been for these students, many of whom have gone on to law school, at Wayne and elsewhere," he says.

WSU brings together students from all walks of life, and his law students typically bring to bear a wide range of life experiences, Roth says.

"And because they study ideas with an eye to applying them to the practice of law, they place an extra onus on me to demonstrate why theoretical propositions 'matter,'" Roth says.

While Roth enjoys teaching at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels, he finds his greatest 'value-added' to be at the undergraduate level -- "When I'm often able to provide a kind of mentorship that can make a real difference, especially for first-generation college students."

His interest in politics and social justice began in junior high school.

"My career has been, in a sense, a natural extension of my studies and activities from that time forward," he says.

The sharpening of conflicts in Central America and the Caribbean coincided with his arrival at Swarthmore College in 1980 to study political science -- and made a lasting impression. Over the years, he has traveled with ten separate professional delegations to that region, including two electoral observation missions in El Salvador.

After Swarthmore, he considered going directly for a Ph.D. in political science, but given the opportunity to attend Harvard Law, felt that would keep open the most options. He never gave up the aspiration to do graduate work in political science.

"I'm grateful that I waited until after my experience in the legal field had given me a distinctive 'take' on scholarly pursuits," he says.

He served as law clerk to New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, and did a three-year stint at what was then New Jersey's second-largest law firm, Hannoch Weisman.

"Litigation enables one to achieve real-world effects through reasoned argumentation -- there is, literally, nothing quite like it," he says. "I have great respect for litigation as a career choice, and without having practiced, I would be a far less insightful scholar and teacher."

In 1991, Roth pursued an LL.M. as a public international law fellow at Columbia, where he applied his knowledge of political theory and comparative politics to problems in international and comparative public law.

"I'd known from the beginning that I would leave private law practice to focus more directly on matters of principle and policy, but the surge of interest in international and comparative public law that accompanied the end of the Cold War made those topics a natural focus," he says.

Three of his LL.M. seminar papers were published as law review articles; but Roth realized he could achieve his potential as an interdisciplinary scholar only by undertaking a systematic study of the interaction of politics and law. He earned his Ph.D., from the University of California at Berkeley where, in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy (JSP) Program, he was able to work with renowned political and legal theorist Jeremy Waldron, and with other leading scholars in political science and law.

His dissertation, "Governmental Illegitimacy in International Law" -- eventually published by Oxford University Press -- integrated the themes of his graduate education in addressing the question of "when is a government not a government?" -- that is, when does the international legal order refuse to acknowledge a ruling apparatus' standing to assert a state's sovereign rights.

Roth also is contributing co-editor, with WSU Law colleague Greg Fox, of "Democratic Governance and International Law," and author of roughly 30 book chapters, journal articles and commentaries dealing with questions of sovereignty, constitutionalism, human rights and democracy.

His 2011book, "Sovereign Equality and Moral Disagreement," draws together themes from throughout his scholarly career -- and "figures to irritate partisans of every stripe," he says. His book -- reviewed in the Feb. 16 issue of "The New Republic" -- attempts a grand statement on the often-paradoxical relationship between international and domestic legal authority, and characterizes the international legal order primarily as a framework for accommodation, rather than as an instrument of justice -- since disagreement about justice is often precisely what necessitates accommodation, he says.

Roth serves as one of three American Branch Representatives to the International Law Association Committee on Recognition/Non-Recognition, charged with rendering a coherent account of international practices regarding the recognition of states and governments. Recognition has been a major theme of his scholarship, identifying the bearers of rights, obligations, powers, and immunities, and identifying those institutions authorized to assert rights, incur obligations, exercise powers, and confer immunities on behalf of those bearers of international legal personality.

"I was especially pleased to be able to present on these questions at the 2011 ILA Regional Meeting in Taiwan, where I have strong ties -- this was my fourth visit -- and where recognition is hardly a mere academic topic."

Roth's personal and work lives are highly intermeshed; many of his friends are also colleagues, and many of his outside activities, such as delegations to Central America and advocacy for Middle East peace, are related to legal and political issues.

"My other interests are varied and idiosyncratic -- the Toronto Maple Leafs, greatest hits of the 1970s, and naval battles of World War II, to name a few," he says.

Published: Wed, Feb 15, 2012

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