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Up Close with James Bacchus

Up Close with Former Congressman and Greenberg Traurig Global Chair James Bacchus.
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Up Close with Former Congressman and Greenberg Traurig Global Chair James Bacchus

Former Congressman James Bacchus chairs the global practice of the Greenberg Traurig law firm, while also finding time to chair the Global Commission on Trade and Investment Policy of the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps Bacchus is best known worldwide for his global judicial service, as one of the seven founding members of the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is the tribunal of final appeal in the international trade disputes of more than 160 countries. According to American Lawyer magazine, “James Bacchus, as much as anyone, can lay claim to being the John Marshall of the World Trade Organization.”  His book Trade and Freedom is in its fourth printing and can be found in almost every law library in the world.

From Local to International

I’ve never understood people who can’t think of anything to do, because I have always had more things I wanted to do than I have time for. My initial plan was to be a history professor. I was in the doctoral program at Yale studying under the distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward. But I had also been a newspaper reporter, starting at the age of 14 for the Sanford Herald, then while at Vanderbilt I shifted to the Orlando Sentinel. During that time, I met and covered Reubin Askew. I took a leave of absence from my studies at Yale and became Askew’s youngest aide and stayed with him for a decade.

I have had the pleasure of working with presidents, prime ministers and heads of state, international jurists and leading luminaries worldwide, but I have never met anyone to match Askew. After his service as governor, he was appointed to U.S. Trade Ambassador by President Carter and I went with him there, which introduced me to the international trade community. 

From Washington to the WTO

I became a trade negotiator and was the first such negotiator to be elected to Congress. Because of that experience, I was immediately enlisted to serve on trade issues as a freshman. That involved normalizing trade with China, the North American Free Trade Agreement and passing the legislation establishing the World Trade Organization (WTO). It never occurred to me that I would be going to the WTO. 

The United States submitted my name as a possible nominee for appointment to the appellate body of the WTO; I was one of two and received bi-partisan support. My Republican friends said they liked my views on trade and they wanted to get me as far from Florida as possible. I then became one of the seven founding members of that appellate body. It was a fascinating experience. Of the seven judges appointed, I was the youngest by 17 years. A decade later, serving with six completely different judges, I was still the youngest. I wasn’t the representative of the U.S. – I was appointed by the 160 countries.

Common Ground with Conflicting Worldviews

There are some 50,000 pages of rules that govern international trade, covering over 95 percent of all the world’s commerce. But of course, different countries interpret these rules differently, and the treaty provides a means of settling disputes by what journalists call “WTO cases.” The system is called a WTO settlement, and the body I served on was the court of final appeal. From these cases, there were tens of thousands of WTO rulings and I confess I wrote many of them.

From Askew, I learned to bring people together to seek common ground. I was nominated because I was a consensus builder. In Geneva, I learned a whole new meaning of consensus, but I am proud to say that every ruling we made, while I was there, was by unanimous consensus.

We wanted to strengthen the institution and to speak with one voice. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, we debated all issues together and they were lengthy and free-wheeling, sitting together around one round table.

Significance of Trade and the International Chamber

The line between domestic and international trade is almost nonexistent, we can’t have an effective domestic economic strategy without including the global component. We can’t address one without the other; when we withdraw, the world keeps turning and they are making trade deals without us. Economists agree that one of the benefits of trade is that it makes us more productive domestically.

I have always wanted to be in public service, but not public office, and one of the ways I try to serve is with the International Chamber of Commerce. I serve as chairman of the Global Commission on Trade and Investment Policy. The ICC is based in Paris with national chapters in 130 countries. Their World Chambers Congress rotates from one region to another every two years and in 2019, it will be held in the Americas. Orlando is bidding to host.

It occurred to me that it would be a great time to bring the Congress to Orlando again. The first time was when Askew brought it here to showcase Florida in 1979. Why is this important? In sheer numbers, it will be smaller than many conventions we seek, but in terms of quality versus quantity, the benefits are enormous. CEOs of hundreds of major corporations and the presidents of the largest U.S. and international chambers with more than 100 countries will be represented. These are very influential players on the world stage and it will give us an opportunity to show the full scope of what Orlando and Central Florida have become and are becoming.


This article appears in the July 2015 issue of i4 Business.
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