John Norton Moore ’62
John Norton Moore ’62 looks back on Duke Law Journal as the laboratory that created his writing career, which to date includes dozens of solo and co-authored books and numerous articles and book chapters.
“My law review experience at Duke taught me how to write,” he recalls. “That was a dramatic change in my life, with other student editors walking me through the writing process and editing my work.”
Moore, who retired from teaching in 2020 after 53 years on the faculty of University of Virginia School of Law and over 25 as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, is still writing. In March, he published his 45th book, The Struggle for Law in the Oceans: How an Isolationist Narrative Betrays America (Oxford). Many consider it a landmark that reflects Moore’s mastery of oceans law and decades-long championing of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He is also co-leading an international group effort to write a manual on Jus ad Bellum (Law for Going to War), expected to be released this winter.
With seven presidential appointments, including one by Ronald Reagan to serve as chair of the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Moore is considered a founder of two fields of American law — national security law and oceans law and policy. He credits Duke Law and its faculty with giving his legal career an auspicious start.
“I learned precise thinking from [Professor] Douglas Maggs,” he says, adding that Dean Elvin R. “Jack” Latty and Professor Robinson O. Everett were also major influences. But renowned scholar Brainerd Currie, whom Moore vividly remembers for his writing and teaching in Conflict of Laws, had the greatest impact on him. “For the Conflicts exam, I had read everything Currie wrote, and I had memorized all the potential cases with full citations for use on the exam,” he says. Afterwards, Currie called Moore to his office and commended him.
Following graduation, Moore earned an LLM at the University of Illinois, was assistant dean at the University of Florida Law School, and spent a post-doc year at Yale Law School. He joined the UVA Law faculty in 1966.
Moore’s oceans law courses had students who were government officials as well as those interested in marine environment protection, shipping, natural resources, and offshore development. “It was an eclectic mix, and as varied as there are issues in the law of the sea,” says James Kraska, a professor of oceans law at both the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard Law School who studied for his LLM and SJD under Moore.
Kraska believes, as Moore does, that after the U.N. Charter, the Law of the Sea Convention is the most consequential treaty of the 20th century, dealing with about 100 cross-cutting issues. The European Union and 168 nations are parties to the Convention, but the full U.S. Senate has never ratified it. “It is a lot to manage, and there is nobody in the last half-century in the United States who has mastered the peculiarities of each of these numerous issues like John.”
The U.S. was a prime mover for negotiating a new comprehensive treaty that would improve on the 1958 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea, especially in priority areas such as enhanced freedom of navigation, recognition of an extended continental shelf, fisheries, the environment, deep seabed mining, and dispute settlement. Treaty negotiations intensified during the Nixon administration and Moore, then working at the State Department, was appointed the U.S. Ambassador for the Law of the Sea Convention. He also chaired the National Security Council Interagency Task Force on the Law of the Sea, which coordinated 18 U.S. government agencies, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Moore left the negotiating team after 90 percent of the treaty, including its national security provisions, was concluded. Developed nations, however, felt the seabed mining section treaty was flawed. Moore, who had by then returned to UVA Law, wrote a letter to President Reagan suggesting changes, such as guaranteeing access rights for U.S. mining companies and a permanent seat for the U.S. on the Council of the Seabed Authority. A new section making these changes was negotiated and widely adopted in 1994. The Clinton administration submitted the treaty for ratification, but opposition within the Senate has so far prevented the U.S. from becoming a party, despite strong support from the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, environmental groups, and industry.
The Struggle for the Law in the Oceans recounts this long history and sets out to rebut opponents’ wide-ranging claims, including that the treaty will result in a loss of U.S. sovereignty or security and that pre-existing customary law is adequate for U.S. oceans interests. Moore cites the Law of the Sea Convention’s dispute resolution mechanisms as particularly reflective of U.S. values, such as the fast release mechanism for seafarers and ships forcibly seized, which is overseen in part by the Convention’s International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). In championing these provisions, the U.S. hoped to avoid repeats of the seizure of American fishermen in the “tuna war” involving Ecuador and Peru as well as the 1975 Mayaguez incident, in which 36 U.S. military personnel were killed attempting to rescue a U.S. container ship seized in Cambodia’s territorial sea.
Moore also examines the 2012 ARA Libertad case, in which the tribunal declared that Ghana’s seizure of an Argentine vessel violated warship immunity. Opponents claimed the decision would allow interference with U.S. courts, but Moore points to its support for a strongly held U.S. position, defusing of a tense situation between two nations, and upholding of national sovereignty.
“The ARA Libertad case was an extremely important case for the clarification of the status of warships,” says Rudiger Wolfrum, professor at Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law and a former president-judge of ITLOS. “In this respect, John was absolutely right. This is a landmark case.”
The ARA Libertad decision also touches on the Law of the Sea Convention’s freedom of navigation rights, which Moore highlights as a key win for U.S. negotiators. The deep seabed minerals regime — which concerns areas rich in manganese, copper, nickel, cobalt, and other rare minerals integral to clean energy development — is another. The Convention gives responsibility for regulating mining and issuing licenses to the International Seabed Authority, but by not being a party to the Convention, the U.S. loses out two ways, he notes: it can’t guide environmental regulations that would address fears of ecological damage and it can’t support its domestic industry against competitors such as China and Russia, with China now licensed for five sites and Russia for three.
The U.S. has already lost two of the four deep seabed mining sites the Convention reserved for it — to a Belgian company and a U.K. consortium, respectively. Some opponents say it doesn’t matter because U.S. firms can join foreign consortia too, but Moore disagrees. “Working through a foreign subsidiary changes the landscape for American jobs, technology dominance, and tax revenues, among other parameters of the national interest in seabed mining,” he writes. Moreover, the U.S. negotiated the only permanent seat on the Council of the International Seabed Authority, a position it cannot assume while a non-party to UNCLOS.
The U.S. is also in a weakened position in the Arctic due to its failure to join the Convention, Moore writes. With climate change causing Arctic ice to melt, more ships will traverse the region. Moore negotiated the provision that strikes a balance for free navigation and allows for coastal states such as Russia, Canada, and the U.S. to set protective environmental norms for Arctic activity up to 200 miles from the coast. “It is a visionary provision that is now more important than ever,” Kraska says.
While the Convention is still held up in the Senate, Moore is continuing with his writing and advocacy, but the treaty and his most recent book reflect decades of his work on oceans matters.
“This treaty was probably the greatest multilateral treaty win in United States history,” he says. “My book aims at educating the American people and hopefully members of the Senate as to the critical importance of moving the Convention on the Law of the Sea to advice and consent in the Senate.”