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Volume 21, Number 5September/October 1970

In This Issue

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Jasper Yeates Brinton

an American Judge in Egypt

Written by William Tracy
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

When Jasper Yeates Brinton, lawyer and judge, was born in Philadelphia in 1878, an imaginative experiment in international justice known as the Mixed Courts of Egypt was already two years underway. But it was more than 40 years before the two got together. In 1921, after graduating from Pennsylvania Law School, serving as lieutenant colonel in the Judge Advocate General's Department and as a member of an American investigatory mission to troubled Armenia, Judge Brinton was nominated by President Harding to be an American representative to Egypt's Mixed Courts. When he sailed for Alexandria to join the courtsby then a much acclaimed successhe didn't realize that he was starting not only another distinguished career, but a brand new life. Judge Brinton was to serve Egypt for the next 27 years, first as a justice, then from 1943 until 1948, as president of the court. He was later, until 1953, legal adviser to the American Embassy in Cairo.

During his years with the courts Judge Brinton was in a unique position to observe this century's fundamental shifts in the long-established relationships between world powers and Egyptthe gradual change from a colonial era in which the Mixed Courts could appear to allforeigner and Egyptianas perhaps the world's most enlightened and progressive model of international justice, to the inevitable day 75 years after they were founded, when such foreign influence could no longer be accepted as compatible with the sovereignty of an independent nation.

Judge Brinton, who with his wife, Geneva, continues to live in Cairo and receive a pension from the Egyptian government, is Honorary Vice President of the Egyptian Society of International Law, which he founded. He has received honorary degrees as Doctor of Laws from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and from his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. His scholarly and readable history of the Mixed Courts, first published in 1930, has recently been published in a revised edition by the Yale University Press.

Since they moved to Cairo from Alexandria in 1948, Judge Jasper Yeates Brinton and his wife, Geneva, have lived in an airy, gracious flat on the top floor of No. 5 Sharia Willcocks, a quiet, tree-shaded street named after a British irrigation expert of the colonial era and located on a Nile island not far from the famous Gezira Sporting Club.

Neither the street nor the island have changed very much from the days when Willcocks would have sipped brandy at the Gezira Club, I decided one morning last winter, but Cairo certainly has. For as I talked with Judge Brinton I had to compete not only with the timeless Friday call of the muezzin but also with the excited cries of young Russians playing volleyball next door.

The Judge and I were sitting in his morning study, with the windows thrown open so he could soak up the December sun. It was a light and pleasant room, overflowing onto the balcony with cartons, cabinets, tins and even old suitcases, all filled with the articles, clippings, photographs, letters and documents which, I learned, the Judge has been collecting almost compulsively for the 50 years he has lived in Egypt. The overflow was piled up on the balcony, because, Judge Brinton explained, there was nowhere else to put it.

"I keep up my correspondence," Judge Brinton said. "You have to if you're living abroad." He chuckled as he said "abroad" and told how Los Angeles Times correspondent Joe Alex Morris was visiting one day when he mentioned "home in Pennsylvania." Morris broke into a guffaw and said "Home! Why that's ridiculous! You've been out here 50 years."

"Of course Egypt is my home," the Judge explains. "But I'm at home in Pennsylvania, too . . . Philadelphia, Phoenixville—that's near Valley Forge—and Washington." He nodded. "I still visit friends who've been out here over the years. It's very pleasant ..."

At the mention of Philadelphia, Judge Brinton's eyes lit up and soon, as is his habit, he was off on one of a dozen subjects that fascinate him. He grew up in Philadelphia, he said, and as a result of that exposure to the home of the American Constitution, became a collector of Americana. "I just happen to be," he said, "the depository of all the books of an ancestor of mine, Dr. William Smith, who was the first provost of the University of Pennsylvania. He was at one time a friend and stalwart of Benjamin Franklin, so the collection includes much Franklin material which involves me in correspondence with historians at home."

"Look here," he said, rising, taking a book from a stack on a nearby table and passing it to me to admire. "That's just one example, a first edition."

Eventually, after many marvelous discursive side trips, we got to the Mixed Courts of Egypt, that interesting, now half-forgotten experiment in international justice, and to Judge Brinton's experiences with the courts after the Sultan of Egypt in 1921 accepted him as President Harding's choice as an American representative.

In those days, Egypt was still a British protectorate and a very formal protectorate at that. Before taking the train up to Cairo to call on the Sultan and Lord Allenby, the British High Commissioner, Judge Brinton had to borrow a frock coat and put on a silk hat.

That same day Dr. Howell, the last American to bear the title "Diplomatic Agent," presented his credentials. And the next year, in 1922, after Egypt's independence, Howell became American Minister and the Sultan became King (Fuad, father of the late King Farouk who was deposed by Nasser). From that time on protocol required that the Judge make at least one formal call on the King each year, which, Judge Brinton admits candidly, he enjoyed immensely. "As an American it rather tickled me to be calling on a king. You don't very often go calling on a king like that, all by yourself, and sit there and talk to him. He was very pleasant."

Judge Brinton's first assignment was with the Court of Appeals, in Alexandria. It was challenging and rewarding work, and life in Alexandria, in the years between the two world wars, was stimulating. He remembers his colleagues on the court not only as "men of competence in law but also frequently men of education and culture in all branches." As were, he added, the attorneys who came to court. There were nearly 1,000 of them, mostly French, Italian, Greek and Levantine, and they were, Judge Brinton says, "the intellectual elite of the country, lawyers of great ability and eloquence, singularly articulate."

"That was the finest court in the world, I think," the Judge said, ". . . with all apologies to the U.S. Supreme Court."

Alexandria itself, Judge Brinton said, his eyes lighting up again, was a city of great distinction. "Sophisticated, fond of music, art and literary interests, a city of beautiful homes, many of them veritable museums. It was a city of rich men—millionnaires—many old families, cotton merchants."

"All the wealth of Egypt passed through Alexandria. To my mind it was very far from the picture drawn by Lawrence Durell in his Quartet. That was a libel on the city. Alexandria was pleasure loving—but cultivated. I doubt if any city of Europe could surpass it in the elegance of its social life."

He sighed pleasantly. "I could tell you about the social life of Alexandria. Of course, I suppose a legal fellow should live sort of straight, but . . . there would be four or five hundred people at masked balls ... up and down the grand stairways . . . On weekends there was our house in a unique little walled village in the desert 40 miles west of Alexandria . . . From there we used to explore the desert and find ancient monasteries." This was a natural offshoot of his position as president of the Royal Archeological Society of Alexandria.

Even during World War II, as the Allies and Germany fought it out in Egypt's Western Desert, that excellent social life continued. The war, in fact, stimulated the gaiety of the city. Their house being "large, old fashioned and commodious," and his wife "an army girl," it became for several years a convalescent center of Allied officers coming from the front.

But the war, Judge Brinton said, was really only "artificial respiration of a passing age." After the war everything began to change. The Mixed Courts gave way to purely national courts, with all Egyptian judges, and the foreign justices—most of them—went home. Brinton, at the urging of the American Embassy in Cairo, stayed on. "Whether I made a mistake or not I don't know," he says today. "But you can't just break away."

Judge Brinton at this point interrupted his story and suggested that we retreat from the sun to have tea in the library, a cool, dim oasis on the north side of the apartment where the walls were lined with books and both a long high table and a massive desk were covered with stacks of them. As we continued our conversation, he was constantly pulling books down or sorting through notes on his desk.

"Now look here," he would say, turning to a stack of magazines. "This came just this morning." Or he might reach for another exhibit, a book: "A friend sent this yesterday." Or searching for a photograph he might explain: "I saw that just today. Look here. I was just showing . . . ," or still another time: "I was just writing ... I was just reading."

When I asked the Judge about his book, The Mixed Courts of Egypt, however, he paused. "Characteristically," he apologized, "I don't suppose I even have a copy." Then he smiled. "I can borrow it from the library of the Egyptian Society of International Law, I guess. Ha! I mean I should be able to. I just finished writing the rules!"

"The society has a fine library," he continued. "The Egyptian government gives us loyal support and several thousand pounds a year for books. Of course, you see," he chuckled, "lawyers know how to get things."

The society has nourished "famously," according to Judge Brinton and many distinguished lecturers have spoken under its auspices, including Justices Jackson and Stewart of the American Supreme Court and Attorney General Francis Biddle.

Judge Brinton cherishes such visits and also his many professional contacts in America. "When you grow old, you know, if you don't have something," his voice trails off, "... a profession. For example, whenever I go home and go up to Yale or Harvard I feel as much at home as at my own university. There's a family circle of doctors, international lawyers. Now there's an object lesson for a young man," he interjected. "Get hold of a profession you're interested in and hang on tight."

Judge Brinton rose from his chair again, chose a brown paper-bound volume from a series standing together, and plopped it onto the table on the ever-growing stack. "This," he said, holding up a report from the United States Supreme Court, "is the best reading I have ... I also get most of the journals from the various law schools. It keeps you in contact. As I say, it keeps you alive."

I asked Judge Brinton if he maintained a regular schedule each day or if he set aside a certain number of hours to work each morning. He replied, smiling, "Well, I try to keep busy."

"I really have a life of luxury," he continued, "because I have a secretary. A nice, pretty little girl named Erne. She's Scotch, married to an Egyptian professor of physics at Cairo University. She does beautiful typewriting which helps my correspondence and that way I can keep in touch." (I do not think I would be unflattering to Effie, who is both "nice" and "pretty," if I inserted here that she is a "little girl" only in the terms of reference of a man entering his 10th decade.) "Oh there's plenty of things to do here," he added. "As I say, if you have a secretary."

For one thing, he serves as what he wryly calls "free legal advisor." "I just carry on as sort of an old patriarch. People come around or call me up and say 'Would you mind helping me with this?' 'Oh yes,' I say, 'I've got the documents!' " Then, Judge Brinton continued, snorting in half-serious jest, "They borrow them and don't return them."

Beyond that he's a member of the board of the Anglo-American Hospital, works closely with the Egyptian Society of International Law, and is writing a history of the American presence in Egypt, including the story of early American consulates. He was also, at the time, trying to interest an American publisher in a law book by a bright young Egyptian friend. "I'm helping to translate the French edition, but that's just a side show. I told him I'd do what I can."

Then there's this Horace business." Judge Brinton got up still again and brought a sheaf of papers from his desk. "I'm working on a little edition of Horace for gentlemen with a former British colleague from the courts. That's a remnant of what used to be a pleasant judicial pastime of translating popular British nursery rhymes into Latin and Greek or Arabic. The British do this sort of thing for the love of it. Not to be 'learned'. Just for Tom foolery. Gosh!"

The Judge paused for a minute reflecting, then poured more tea for both of us. "Yes, I've been mixed up in a good many things here," he continued pensively. "But I had a very concentrated 27 years on the bench, 27 years of my life in search of the mot juste. In law you have to put your spy glass right there and concentrate. Now I can afford to spread out a little." Judge Brinton told me of another project he had been working on for some time: the memoirs of his years in Egypt and his boyhood in Philadelphia. It was something he had long wanted to do, simply for the family to read, for children and grandchildren. "But don't misunderstand," he said, suddenly sharp. "I'm not interested in making a name as a writer. I'm a lawyer, I've been a lawyer since the beginning."

William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World Magazine.

The Mixed Courts of Egypt
Written by William Tracy

From the earliest days of commercial contact between West and East around the fringes of the eastern Mediterranean, foreign merchants looked to their own consulates for justice whenever trade disputes arose. In the Ottoman Empire, these special privileges developed into formal concessions called "Capitulations" and eventually came to be seen as rights. In Egypt, the consular courts, gradually extending their control, ended by claiming jurisdiction over all matters affecting their nationals. By the middle of the 19th century, some 15 sovereign consular judicial systems were jealously serving the 80,000 foreigners (the majority Greek, French and Italian) doing business in Egypt.

Since terribly difficult problems of jurisdiction soon developed, 14 of the so-called capitulatory powers reluctantly agreed to try, for an experimental period, of five years, a federal system of Mixed Courts. The countries were Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, the United States, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Sweden, Holland, Portugal and Russia.

The agreement was an important advance in international cooperation. With the Suez Canal attracting ever more trade, hardly any situation was without mixed foreign interests. Eventually the courts were handling the bulk of Egypt's legal business. In one period the judges filed nearly 40,000 written opinions in a single year and turned over nearly $5 million to the Egyptian national treasury after deducting operating expenses.

By then the Mixed Courts included three district courts, sitting at Cairo, Alexandria, and Mansourah, and a court of appeals in Alexandria. Their basic law and language were derived from the Code Napoleon and their jurisdiction extended to all suits "between Egyptians and ftoreigners and between foreigners of different nationalities," and disputes involving land between all foreigners. The consuls retained jurisdiction only in Serious criminal cases and suits involving a single foreign nationality.

Despite the foreign code and language, however, the courts were considered part of the national Egyptian judicial system. They were maintained by the Egyptian treasury. All writs were issued in the name of the Egyptian sovereign. One third of the judges were Egyptian and although the others were nominated by foreign nations, the Sultan made the appointments. Furthermore, the judges had tenure and were able to give their loyalty to the courts,rather than their country of origin.

To western jurists the courts were clearly a success. Henry Morgenthau, in the New York Times in 1930, said that for "solid achievement in the field of international cooperation the Mixed Courts of Egypt are without parallel in history..." And in 1925, Sir Maurice Amos called them "next to the Church... the most successful international institution in history."

On the other hand, as a book reviewer in the Egyptian Gazette pointed out in 1930, "...although the Mixed Courts are an Egyptian institution of international character... (it) cannot be expected to appear so admirable to the Egyptian as it does to the foreigner...

"The foreign colony is too apt... to look upon its advent and labours in Egypt as a divine blessing," the paper went on, whereas the educated Egyptian "has doubts if his countrymen get much out of it other than the privilege of acting as hewers of wood and drawers of water to the invader." At this time some 150,000 resident foreigners largely controlled the commerce of a nation of about 14 million inhabitants.

The shift from the system of the Mixed Courts began at the Conference of Montreux in 1937 when much of the remaining authority of the archaic consular courts was transferred to the Mixed Courts. Then, after a 12-year transition period, during which Egyptian membership and influence increased, the Egyptian courts took over and the Mixed Courts closed forever—on October 15, 1949.

This article appeared on pages 18-21 of the September/October 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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