The Observer

World traveler

The other life of Judge Richard Stearns

By Sam Allis
Globe Columnist / December 14, 2008
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Federal Judge Richard Stearns strides into his chambers and says, "Sorry I'm late. I was seeing my Macedonians off."

They would be a group of judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers from the former Yugoslav republic who were in town last week to shape a national pretrial detention statute modeled after ours. Pretrial detention in Soviet-inspired legal systems is reflexive and hair-raising in the extreme.

"I've been working with them on a broader judicial reform project," says Stearns, who will be in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, in April to continue the work.

In May, he returns to Croatia to lecture on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and also referee naval exercises held among four Adriatic countries if they are held this year. (He's done the naval gig before and loves it.)

From Turkmenistan, to Latvia, and the Balkans - 21 countries in all - Stearns has been there, speaking on terrorism and judicial reform. (He is one of the few American judges who travels on a diplomatic passport.)

The man has made some 20 trips to Hungary alone to address the threat of terrorism and the need to coordinate terrorism laws with neighboring countries. Hungary, he says, was the only foreign country where FBI agents had arrest powers and could carry guns.

Also new to me - all of this is new to me - are the assistant US attorneys working as legal attaches in 30 of our embassies, primarily in southern Europe, Eurasia, and Africa, to provide technical assistance and training in criminal prosecution.

In his regular life, Stearns, 64, is a respected federal district court judge in Boston who maintains a large caseload. A former federal prosecutor and Superior Court judge, he has been on the federal bench since 1994, after being nominated by Bill Clinton, a friend since their days together as Rhodes scholars.

He also has impeccable Democratic credentials, having been Ted Kennedy's Iowa delegate counter in the failed presidential campaign in 1980 and before that, a George McGovern stalwart.

I ask Stearns to quantify his time spent abroad. He pauses and says that while filling out government paperwork in 2006, he determined that in the previous eight-year period, he'd been overseas for a total of one of the eight years.

He takes no vacations - he devotes that time to his work abroad, which he says brings him great satisfaction. He is able to maintain this schedule because he is immune to jet lag, he and his wife have no children, and she is a saint.

Stearns has been doing this kind of work since 1995, after hearing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor urge federal judges to provide technical assistance to judicial reform efforts abroad. He jumped at the opportunity. He'd been hooked on foreign travel since he read the classic "A Child's History of the World" at 10.

He routinely works for Department of Defense, State Department, and American Bar Association projects abroad to help countries improve their legal systems. Since 9/11, he has focused on the counter-proliferation of WMD and, more broadly, the intersection of global terrorism and law.

Stearns was in Russia to help jump-start a jury system for Vladimir Putin.

For the past two years, he has been part of an elite group who, under the auspices of NATO, think big thoughts about terrorism. This gang, which ranges from retired Israeli generals to Danish custom chiefs, was holed up in a Portuguese mountain town in September trying to dream up ways that terrorists might use the Internet that Western security experts have missed.

In 1994, Congress provided money to help resurrect border protection of former Soviet states. The KGB had been great at the task, but border enforcement disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and black market transfers of evils like fissile material moved unchecked.

Security improved. More bad guys were arrested, but there were no appropriate laws in place among the former Soviet states with which to prosecute them. Stearns was dispatched to help develop new ones. He is now a wizard in comparative legal systems.

"I now lecture more in European Human Rights law than anything else," he says. "The most interesting subject now is the adoption of a coordinated rule of law to address the endemic problem of terrorism.

Stearns's taxonomy of terrorists runs counter to the US approach to terrorism, which has been grounded on the idea that one size fits all. "There are terrorists and there are terrorists," he cautions.

Consider: the Unibomber, anarchist groups like the Baader-Meinhof gang, political ideologues like the Khmer Rouge, irredentist groups like the IRA, and, of course, Al Qaeda. The appropriate legal venue to prosecute these parties varies according to their threat.

His legal approach is a modulated one lying between hard-liners who abhor the idea of alleged terrorists coming anywhere near American courts, and opposing hard-liners who demand that everyone accused of terrorism come through our court system.

"Not every problem has a legal solution," Stearns writes. "Rigid insistence on the rule of law as a value that transcends all others, even at the risk of collective suicide is, as Justice Jackson famously warned, simply too high a price to pay."

Sam Allis can be reached at

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