William Butler

William E. Butler

John Edward Fowler Distinguished Professor of Law, Dickinson Law, Pennsylvania State University

When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies?

I am one of the Sputnik generation who acquired an early interest in international affairs and resolved to combine that interest with legal studies. I systematically pursued the acquisition of advanced degrees in both disciplines and ultimately wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on “The Soviet Union and the Law of the Sea.” Following my law degree at Harvard, I worked on a contract for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency at Johns Hopkins SAIS and completed the pre-dissertation requirements. Then I returned to Harvard as Research Associate in Law where a collective course was designed and offered by five of us on “Chinese, Soviet, and Western Approaches to International Law.” In 1970 I was appointed to the Readership in Comparative Law at the University of London, tenable at University College London, where the preference was for a Soviet law specialist. There I remained for 35 years, elevated to a personal chair in 1976. Upon retirement in 2005, I returned to the States and took a position at Dickinson Law.

What support have you received throughout your career that has allowed you to advance your scholarship?

First, and most important, was support from faculty colleagues who have tolerated and encouraged an international and comparative lawyer in their midst specializing in Soviet and post-Soviet legal systems. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1979 enabled a translation of V. E. Grabar, The History of International Law in Russia 1647-1917 to be completed. The British Academy, British Council, and University College London supported a remarkable bilateral direct link between the Faculty of Laws at UCL and the Institute of State and Law of the USSR Academy of Sciences under which more than 100 scholars from each side undertook individual research projects and conferences for a decade. I initiated and coordinated the relationship from the British side and benefited enormously from individual research time spent in Russian archives and libraries. I had the benefit of an IREX grant in 1971-72 to pursue research on Soviet approaches to international law and, for one year, an NDFL fellowship back in the 1960s for Russian language studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

What is your current research project?

I have more than one underway, as usual. Much time is being devoted to completing a treatise provisionally entitled The St. Petersburg School of International Law in collaboration with a colleague from St. Petersburg University. Just published was a monograph for Oxford University Press, International Law in the Russian Legal System.

What does your ASEEES membership mean to you? How has your involvement with ASEEES helped to further your career?

I joined ASEEES back in 1962 as a graduate student and became a life member during the mid-1980s; one of my better investments. From time to time I have been on legal panels at Society conferences and done the occasional book review. The journal is the lifeblood of the Society, interdisciplinary in focus, and thoroughly introduces developments in the field via its extensive reviews of the current literature. 

How do you envision your current research project(s) within the broader field of SEEES?

I have always dealt with post-Soviet legal systems generally, including Ukraine, Belarus, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Legal translation is the foundation of comparative law, and as one of the founding editors of The Journal of Comparative Law (2006-) and the founding editor of Jus Gentium: Journal of International Legal History (2016-), I have devoted considerable efforts to promoting Slavic, East European, and Eurasian legal studies in these media, especially in the latter journal by encouraging the publication of notes and documents drawn from archival sources. Expected this spring is a collection of articles by Central and East European authors on Discovering the Unexpected: Comparative Legal Studies in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition to my own contribution (“Peter the Great as a Comparative Lawyer”), I have translated 20 of the 26 contributions.

Besides your professional work, what other interests and/or hobbies do you enjoy?

I am a bibliophile, collector of bookplates (ex-libris), and amateur beekeeper – the last inspired by Dorothy Galton’s monograph on a millennium of Russian beekeeping, mentioned three times in the Russkaia Pravda.