Representing the United States Abroad: Proper Conduct of U.S. Government Attorneys in International Tribunals

50 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2013 Last revised: 23 Aug 2013

Date Written: March 9, 2013


“May it please the Court. I represent the United States of America in this matter.” These are weighty words in a U.S. court, where U.S. government attorneys are expected to embody a heightened standard of ethical conduct and further the broad interests of justice. This role contrasts sharply with that of a private practice attorney, who generally fulfills ethical duties by zealously ad- vocating for a single client. U.S. government attorneys do not appear exclusively in U.S. courts, however; they also appear regularly in the International Court of Justice, before arbitral panels for the North American Free Trade Agreement, and in other international tribunals. What are the expectations and obligations of these attorneys in such international tribunals? What expectation do the words, “I represent the United States of America,” evoke in these tribunals? As in- ternational tribunals proliferate and the U.S. government finds itself ever more frequently before them, these questions grow increasingly pressing. This Article discusses the as yet largely unexplored expectations and obligations of U.S. government attorneys acting in international tribunals and argues that these attorneys should embody the same heightened standard of conduct abroad that they do at home. In both domestic and international contexts, a heightened standard of conduct should be expected because U.S. government attorneys must take a broad view of their client, preserve the government’s long-run credibility, and act as ministers of justice. Moreover, international tribunals are moving toward implementing guidelines that would require a high standard of conduct from attorneys practicing before them, and such conduct by government attorneys facilitates these international tribunals’ role in the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Keywords: foreign relations, international law, international courts, international tribunals, ethics, professional conduct

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Gibson, Catherine H., Representing the United States Abroad: Proper Conduct of U.S. Government Attorneys in International Tribunals (March 9, 2013). Georgetown Journal of International Law, Vol. 44, p. 1167, 2013. Available at SSRN:

Catherine H. Gibson (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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