In wide-ranging remarks at Harvard Law School on Friday October 16 2015 John Bellinger, now a partner Arnold & Porter LLP, reflected on his 29-year legal career in both the public and the private sectors, discussed international law, and encouraged students to pursue careers in national security. In addition to leading Arnold & Porter’s National Security and Public International Law practices, Mr. Bellinger is a veteran government lawyer, most recently serving as Legal Adviser at the Department of State from 2005 to 2009. After earning a J.D. from Harvard Law in 1986, Mr. Bellinger began his legal career in private practice. He transitioned to government service in 1988, serving as Special Assistant to the CIA Director. During his tenure at the CIA, Mr. Bellinger was involved with the United States’ response to crucial international developments: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Panama War, and the First Gulf War.
Photo courtesy of Audra Herrera.
Mr. Bellinger noted that his experience in private practices armed him with key opportunities, training, and resources that prepared him well for his work in government. Similarly, while his experience in government has largely been in the Executive Branch, he found that a stint at the Legislative Branch increased his ability to understand certain issues deeply from a different perspective. As Legal Adviser to the National Security Council, Mr. Bellinger was in the Situation Room on 9/11. In his talk, Mr. Bellinger discussed the restructuring of security-related government departments in response to 9/11.
As Legal Adviser at the Department of State from 2005 to 2009, Mr. Bellinger represented the United States before international tribunals, like the International Court of Justice. In his remarks, he recalled the complex issues he faced during the Medellin episode (commonly known as the Avena case), in which Mexico sued the United States in the ICJ regarding the arrest of 51 Mexican nationals who had not been informed of their Vienna Convention rights to notify a consular office. Still without notice to their consular, the 51 individuals were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. The ICJ ruled that the United States had breached its obligations under the Vienna Convention. Mr. Bellinger’s position, supported by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and ultimately by President George W. Bush, was that the United States should comply with the ICJ ruling. President Bush issued an Executive Order directing state courts to review the 51 cases in accordance with the ICJ ruling. Texas refused set aside the original conviction (the Mexians were being held in Texas). Medellin—one of the convicts—filed a habeas petition, arguing that Texas was required to comply with the President’s Executive Order. The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed the lower courts’ denial of Medellin’s habeas petition. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, Mexico again sued the United States at the ICJ, arguing that the United States had failed to implement the ICJ’s prior holding. Mr. Bellinger argued on behalf of United States at the ICJ, and had to make the nuanced argument that the Bush administration had complied with the prior ICJ ruling but could not contest a Supreme Court ruling.
Harold Koh, a former Dean of Yale Law School, succeeded Mr. Bellinger as the Legal Adviser at the Department of State. Mr. Koh left that position in 2013, and Mr. Bellinger noted—with some concern—that there is currently no Legal Adviser at the State Department.
Mr. Bellinger concluded his talk with a discussion of legal careers at firms and at the State, Commerce and Treasury departments. He credited law firms with providing excellent early-career training and opportunities, while encouraging students to maintain a commitment to public service even if deciding to spend some time in private practice.
Post submitted by a 2L student at Harvard Law School and member of the National Security Law Association.