Farewell Burns Weston, Questing Legal Mind and Dear Friend

Until the very end, my dear friend and colleague Burns Weston was passionate, hard-driving and committed to changing the world.  That’s why I was stunned to learn that Burns passed away yesterday, a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday.  When he failed to make a scheduled telephone call, friends checked his condo and found him dead.  Burns was a well-known international law and international human rights scholar at the University of Iowa College of Law.  He was also founder of its noted Center for Human Rights.

I met Burns about seven years ago when he was a professor for one semester a year at Vermont Law School.  He was writing a major legal treatise about climate change, and one element of the essay dealt with the commons.  A mutual friend, the polymath Roger G. Kennedy, introduced us, and the gravitational pull of Burns’ essay quickly drew me in. It was an irresistible disruption in my life that got me thinking a lot about environmental law and the commons.

Soon we were working together on a variety of projects:  a major scholarly book, chapters in anthologies, law review articles, grant proposals. In the course of it all, Burns exposed me to a great deal of human rights and international law, and he helped clarify their potential and limits for re-imagining international governance, environmental law and the actualization of human rights. For my part, I introduced Burns to the loose but growing network of international commoners and commons literature. He quickly realized that the commons is not just complementary to human rights; the two are long-lost partners with affirmative synergies. 

Our conversations became more serious and, with a bit of serendipitous funding, we embarked upon a grueling book project, Green Governance:  Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press.  It was a bold attempt to reimagine environmental law and policy through the lens of human rights and the commons.  We wanted to envision new ways to actualize human rights principles and commons practices at global and regional levels.  We wanted to think beyond the framework of the nation-state and international treaty organizations.  We wanted to think beyond the standard forms and institutions of law itself.

Burns attacked these questions with the enthusiasm of a first-year law student and the sagacity of a gray eminence.  He really wanted to come up with creative legal solutions, and he wasn’t afraid if they might require social and political struggle. Now that’s not a quality you find in your average law professor, let alone one in his seventies. Burns had a bold and questing temperament, and did not let himself be confined by the disciplinary blinders of law. That’s why, following the publication of Green Governance, Burns wanted to continue our explorations.  So we founded the Commons Law Project to see if we could propose an architecture of law and public policy to address climate change and other urgent ecological problems.

Burns retired from teaching in 1999, but his schedule was anything but retiring.  Somehow he juggled a daunting portfolio of chapters for book anthologies, law review articles, law school teaching, public talks, support for the Center for Human Rights, sitting on the editorial boards of over ten professional journals, and acting as series editor for the longest continuing international law book series in the US.  I was privileged that our collaborations could fit into this schedule, and that I could learn indirectly from the many people and ideas that coursed through his life.

At his death, Burns and I were exploring – along with Professor Anna Grear, founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal on Human Rights and the Environment – the challenges of new forms of governance.  Anna and I still hope to convene workshops of venturesome legal scholars, activists and others to try to elicit some great ideas.  We will sorely miss Burns’ counsel, his mastery of the law and legal literature, and his friendships with a large network of legal thinkers.

Since I’m not a lawyer or a legal scholar, I had only glimpses into the world of international law and human rights in which Burns normally lived, and the many unusual experiences that he had in a prior life as an attorney.  He once chuckled at his meeting with Marilyn Monroe, for example, when he was a New York City attorney representing playwright Arthur Miller. Today, Professor Mary Wood, the indefatigable champion and scholar of public trust doctrine (Nature’s Trust), described sharing a podium with Burns just last week:

I stood with Burns just one week ago in front of the UN Association of Iowa to give an address on climate emergency.  Burns gave a resounding call to arms to those in the audience.  He said, if you think that you have a human right to the resources that sustain your survival, take that right to court.  It will not amount to anything if you don’t, he said.  It was thrilling to follow such a call from an incomparable scholar with my own address to the audience describing how youth across this nation are taking government to court in a global campaign spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust to force carbon dioxide reduction before it is too late.  Burns was an esteemed scholar in the atmospheric trust litigation amicus group supporting the litigation campaign.

Dean Agrawal has credited Burns with “putting Iowa Law on the map” in international law and international human rights.  He was responsible for recruiting some of our most distinguished faculty members in the fields of international and comparative law…and inspired generations of law students.”  She called Burns a “citizen of the world.”  I’ll say. 

My deep condolences to Burns’ wife Marta Cullberg Weston and family, and to Burns’ colleagues at the University of Iowa.  We’ve lost a giant legal scholar, a restless mind and a dear friend.