President Barack Obama nominated Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh on Monday to the position of legal adviser to the Department of State.
Upon confirmation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Koh said in an e-mail message to the Law School community that he will resign from his deanship and take a public service leave. As legal adviser, Koh will serve as principal counselor on all legal matters to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73.
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“There is no institution I love more than the Yale Law School. I have had the privilege of teaching here since 1985, and serving as your Dean since 2004,” Koh said in the e-mail message.
Kate Stith, the Lafayette S. Foster Professor of Law and former deputy dean of the Law School, will serve as acting dean, University President Richard Levin announced in a statement.
Like many Obama appointees, Koh is no stranger to the Beltway. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright from 1998 to 2001. Koh has also been a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and other international organizations as part of his duties as assistant secretary of state in the final years of the Clinton administration.
In addition, Koh has strong connections to Clinton and her husband, both graduates of Yale Law School.
While Koh’s deanship is among the most coveted positions in legal academia, the position of legal adviser is one of great importance in international law, Koh’s area of expertise.
“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,” John Bellinger III, who served as legal adviser until January’s transition, said in an interview Feb. 5. “It is the central place to do international law.”
In the early 1990s, Koh successfully led a group of Yale Law students in a protracted legal battle to free Haitian refugees from Guantanamo Bay. From 1993 to 1998, Koh served as director of the Law School’s Center for International Human Rights. In addition to serving as Dean, Koh is the Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law.
Today’s announcement brings to a close months of speculation at the Law School and in Washington, D.C. about whether Koh — whose five-year term as dean is set to end in June — might leave Yale to serve again in the federal government. Previously, Koh had emphatically dismissed such talk as blog-inspired gossip. But in an early February interview, Koh declined to comment when asked if he would say, unequivocally, that he would not leave the Law School this year for a government appointment.