A comparative scholar beyond compare

Professor Arthur T. von Mehren ’45, a world-renowned scholar in international and comparative law whose work influenced generations of lawyers throughout the globe, died Jan. 16 of pneumonia. He was 83.

Fluent in several languages, von Mehren had studied extensively abroad. He was the author of 10 books and hundreds of articles on various aspects of comparative and international law, including conflicts of law and jurisdiction. “Phases of German Civil Procedure,” co-written with HLS Professor Emeritus Benjamin Kaplan and Rudolf Schaefer, and published in 1958, remained the gold standard in the field for 50 years, according to Visiting Professor Peter Murray ’67. A founding member and past president of the American Society of Comparative Law, von Mehren taught in nine countries.

In 1966, von Mehren was appointed by the State Department to the U.S. delegation to the Hague conference on private international law. His work there over the decades culminated in the Convention on Choice of Court Agreements, finalized at The Hague last summer, which allows parties to stipulate the jurisdiction in which they litigate international disputes.

“He was a revered elder statesman,” said Murray, in large part because he emphasized that in comparing legal systems, one must never resort to nationalism or a judgmental approach. His love for teaching was as strong as his passion for scholarship. This past fall, despite his failing health, von Mehren co-taught with Murray a course for LL.M. students on the American legal system. “I think the reason he did it was because of his image of himself as a teacher. I don’t think he could give it up,” Murray said. “Nobody at the law school defined himself as a scholar and law professor more than Arthur von Mehren.”

Several years ago, for von Mehren’s 80th birthday, more than 75 colleagues and former students from around the world gathered at Harvard for a special celebration that included a Festschrift, a collection of academic articles dedicated to von Mehren. At the time of his death, a second Festschrift was being compiled in his honor by a dozen German scholars who, as Joseph Story fellows, had served as his research assistants over the years.

“He was a great scholar of the old school,” said Professor Emeritus Detlev F. Vagts ’51. “He relied on his immense knowledge of comparative law rather than relying on search engines and modern machinery, and he knew an enormous number of people around the world in the field. He was an institution.”

Born in Albert Lea, Minn., von Mehren and his twin brother, Robert, won scholarships to Harvard and Yale, respectively, and Arthur graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1943. Both attended HLS, where they stand as the only twins to have succeeded each other as president of the law review, with Arthur serving first.

After graduating from the law school in 1945, von Mehren received a doctorate in government from Harvard. In 1946, he was appointed as an assistant professor of law at HLS. Before he began teaching, he spent three years studying law in Germany, France and Switzerland, and then returned to Cambridge, where he taught for more than 50 years. In 1993, he became emeritus but continued to contribute in the classroom.

“Arthur’s scholarship and teaching have been immeasurably influential both at home and abroad,” said Dean Elena Kagan ’86. “He has had an effect on generations of LL.M. students who studied at Harvard Law School and went back to their own countries, and his work in comparative civil procedure has endured for 50 years.”