Koh considered for State Department

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Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh is a leading contender to be appointed legal adviser to the Department of State, two people familiar with the selection process told the News.In that position, Koh — a former assistant secretary of state and a leading expert on international law — would serve as principal counselor on all legal matters to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73.

Harold Hongju Koh,
Yale Law School Dean.
Grant Smith
Harold Hongju Koh, Yale Law School Dean.

Rumors have swirled for months around the Law School and in Washington, D.C., that Koh, whose five-year term as dean ends in June, might leave Yale to serve again in government. Koh, however, has repeatedly dismissed talk about a possible appointment as pure speculation.

When asked to confirm Wednesday that he was being considered for a post in the Obama administration, Koh initially declined to comment through a spokeswoman. Koh also declined to comment when asked if he would say, unequivocally, that he would not leave the Law School this year for a government appointment.

While Koh’s deanship is among the most coveted positions in academia, the two legal advisers from the administration of President George W. Bush ’68 said in telephone interviews Wednesday night that the State Department position is one of great import in international law.

“It’s certainly the most prestigious international law office in the federal government, if not the most prestigious general counsel office in the government overall,” said John Bellinger III, who served as legal adviser until last month’s change of power in Washington. “It is the central place to do international law.”

The job, then, may be perfect for Koh. In addition to serving as dean, he is the Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law at Yale; from 1993 to 1998, he served as director of the Law School’s Center for International Human Rights. During the early 1990s, he successfully led a group of Yale Law students in a legal battle to free Haitian refugees from Guantanamo Bay.

Koh, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School who studied as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford, has strong connections to Clinton and her husband, both graduates of Yale Law School. From 1998 to 2001, the Clinton administration’s final years, Koh was a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and other international groups as part of his duties as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

William Howard Taft IV ’66, who was Bellinger’s predecessor as legal adviser in the Bush administration, said the legal adviser must be prepared to give advice constantly on the legal requirements of international law and various treaty commitments.

“Harold’s a great fellow,” Taft said, declining to comment further on Koh’s candidacy because the search to fill the legal adviser position is ongoing. A spokesman for the State Department offered no comment on Koh’s possible appointment.

One senior University official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a colleague, said it was no surprise that Koh might head to Washington.

“He’s often been talked about in Washington circles,” the official said. “He certainly is a very big Democrat. … It would be likely that he might be under consideration.”

If the appointment of Koh to the State Department does not go through, he will still have a job at Yale. University President Richard Levin said Wednesday that a routine review of Koh’s tenure at the Law School — timed for the end of his first term as dean — had yielded positive responses.

“It was clear that the community supported his reappointment,” Levin said. “There’s no question: If he stays here, he will be reappointed.”

Koh’s status at the Law School beyond this year may not be clear, but his plans for Friday are. Koh will moderate a conference at the Law School on — of all topics — international law.

The conference, titled “The Pursuit of International Criminal Justice: The Case of Darfur,” will include more than a dozen distinguished practitioners of international law. One of them is Bellinger, the former legal adviser.

But first, this afternoon, Koh will stand before the Law School community to deliver a state of the school address, perhaps his last.

­Vivian Yee contributed reporting.


  • YLS prof

    koh would be a good legal adviser, and he really won't be missed here.

  • Jack

    Yes, Koh belongs in Washington-- but as a Supreme Court justice!

  • person actually at YLS

    @1 - you say you're a "YLS Prof"? Yeah. Right.

    Dean Koh has done a fantastic job at the law school, and will be missed a lot. It's rare to find a top lawyer and legal scholar who also has the (frankly quite different) talents that it takes to be a great dean. Harold Koh is such a person, and the law school will miss him a lot if he goes to DC.

    I was sort of hoping he would head to the Second Circuit so that he and his family could stay in New Haven. But this state department job is certainly commensurate with his skills and expertise. Either way, he is certainly a potential future Supreme Court nominee (although I strongly suspect that Obama's first Supreme Court nominee is likely to be a woman, because by replacing O'Connor with Alito, Bush reduced the number of women on the court to an absolutely shameful ONE out of nine).

  • Old Blue

    Just what the Supreme Court needs … another hard-left graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School.

  • Recent Alum

    Koh is a hack and everyone knows it.

  • @ Recent Alum

    By 'everyone' you mean the far-right? We know — but keep trolling anyway.

  • Anonymous

    Has Koh actually done such a great job? It seems like HLS has been catching up with YLS… maybe YLS could deal with some new vision and renewed dedication…

  • recent YLS grad

    Koh has done a great job. Just to pick out two examples, he successfully recruited two of Yale's major younger stars, Heather Gerken and Christine Jolls, from Harvard. Students like Koh, and under his leadership a lot of programs and centers at the law school have grown.

    It's true that Elena Kagan at Harvard has done a world-historically amazing job. She had an unusual opportunity: she came at the end of a long, really bad period of deadlock at Harvard in which basically no appointments were made. But the school was sitting on TONS of money, and as soon as she was able to break through that deadlock, they've gone on a huge hiring spree, including poaching top scholars from everywhere (including Yale). She did a lot for life at Harvard Law as well.

    But let's keep it in perspective. Of the students who get into both Yale and Harvard law, an extremely large super-majority choose Yale. And they're right. It's far, far better. And Dean Koh has greatly strengthened the school's overall position -- it's just that HLS is catching up because five years ago it was further behind than it should have been.

    One more thing: be careful what you wish for. A new YLS dean might or might not be any good. A lot of the professors at YLS are brilliant but, to put it nicely, somewhat lacking in administrative skills. And the dean will usually come from the faculty.

  • Hiero II

    Lol. Harold Koh is a nice guy. But too far left for my liking.

  • Alum '81

    Should this happen,it would be a good opportunity for the Law School to find a more mainstream legal scholar. Mr. Koh's positions are too far to the Left. His protests against the US military were a national disgrace. Hopefully, if he does get the State position, he will not return this country to the pre-9/11 legal mindset that resulted in multiple attacks on the US and the deaths of thousands of Americans.

  • YLS hero

    To the far-right, Koh may seem far-left. But in the general scheme of things, he is really progressive and not radical at all.

    If he leaves YLS, he will be missed and YLS will suffer. Mark my words.

  • Yale Law '99

    Regardless of his controversial politics, Koh has not been a particularly effective administrator. His pending departure gives Yale to opportunity to rectify an unfortunate mistake. The fact that he has two Harvard cegrees has nothing to do with it!

  • Recent Alum

    The problem with Koh is not only that his views are too far to the Left (which they are), but that he has demonstrated extreme intolerance of people with opposing viewpoints. See, e.g., his disgraceful (mis)treatment of Justice Thomas, one of the most prominent Yale Law alums. Koh can effectively be contrasted to Elena Kagan, who also holds far-Left political views, but who is respectful of people with diverse viewpoints.

  • Koh "far left"?!? On what planet?

    What on earth are you people talking about? I thought I was reading the YDN comments section, but now I feel as though I've stumbled into some kind of right-wing freakshow parallel universe in which mainstream, moderate Democrats are described as "hard left" or "far left."

    Please. Harold Koh is a mainstream, Obama Democrat. His views are right about in line with our President's on most legal issues. Obviously, he is nowhere hear as "extreme" in his views as any number of Republicans who were appointed and confirmed by the Senate to prestigious posts in the previous administration, which actually was extreme rather than moderate in many legal domains.

    Where do you people get the idea that Koh is "far left"? Far left compared to what? David Addington?? Maybe you right-wingers think our current President is "far left" or "hard left" too (he is if Koh is). If so, then it appears that the American people disagree with you.

  • Recent YLS grad

    @13: Dean Koh has tried very hard to bring Justice Thomas to YLS in recent years. He won't come. However, Koh succeeded in bringing Justice Scalia to Yale for the first time since Scalia was appointed to the Court many decades ago, something no previous YLS dean in all those years achieved. I was there at the Scalia event -- it was really fantastic. Koh has also been nothing but supportive of conservative law students, the Federalist Society, the new pro-life law student group, et cetera. Since when is he intolerant of conservatives? Do you have any evidence of this? There's so much strong evidence pointing the other way. I suspect that you just don't like him, and so you want to pretend he's intolerant of you. (Will the conservative persecution complex ever end?)