Starr backs Koh for State Department

As conservatives continued to attack outgoing Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh’s nomination to the Department of State last week, an endorsement came from the unlikeliest of people.

In a speech at Yale Law School on Thursday, conservative icon Kenneth Starr announced his support for Koh before an audience of about 95 students and professors, two people in attendance said. The endorsement from Starr — whose report on the Monica Lewinsky scandal paved the way for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 — comes as right-wing critics continue to allege that Koh will place international statutes above American law.

According to the two audience members, Starr said the Senate should defer to the president’s nominations, especially those in the executive branch. As long as the nominee demonstrates integrity and competence, Starr added, the president deserves to appoint his own assistants and advisers.

Starr — dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law since 2004 — was away from his office Friday and was unable to comment, a Pepperdine spokeswoman said.

Although originally scheduled to speak on the nomination and confirmation of United States Supreme Court nominees, Starr repeatedly touched upon Koh’s nomination at the event, which was sponsored by the Yale Law Federalist Society. Sterling professor of law Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84, who was in the audience, said Starr’s endorsement of Koh reflected the media’s vilification of Starr, a former independent counsel, a decade earlier.

“Starr himself was a victim of a spin machine,” Amar said in reference to Koh’s current portrayal in the media.

Throughout the Lewinsky scandal, critics debated Starr’s neutrality in the investigation. In October 1999, eight months after the Senate acquitted Clinton of all charges, Starr resigned from his post, citing the “politicization of the [investigation] process.”

Amar said Starr’s endorsement of Koh was also important given the past history between the two. When Koh challenged the right of the administration of George H.W. Bush ’48 to detain Haitian refugees at Guantanamo Bay in the early 1990s, Starr — then U.S. solicitor general — argued on behalf of the administration. But Starr’s respect for Koh never wavered, said Amar, who sat on a panel with Starr at Pepperdine in late March.

“Despite being opposing counsels,” Amar said, “[Starr] still held Koh in the highest regard.”

Benjamin Johnson LAW ’10, co–vice president for events for the Yale Law Federalist Society, said Starr’s endorsement of Koh, while still a surprise to many in the audience, was nonetheless consistent with his previous support of the president’s power to appoint whomever he pleases.

Student reaction to the talk, Johnson added, was in general “very favorable.”

After President Barack Obama nominated Koh as top legal aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73 on March 23, conservative pundits attacked the dean as a supporter of “transnationalism,” the notion that American courts could apply foreign law in domestic cases. The concept recently gained widespread attention when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cited foreign statutes in two high-profile cases: Lawrence v. Texas, which essentially struck down sodomy laws across the country in 2003, and Roper v. Simmons, which outlawed juvenile execution in the United States in 2005.

But the storm of controversy that followed these decisions soon caused Kennedy to shy away from the use of international law. Kennedy has yet to cite foreign statutes in a constitutional opinion since Roper.

Koh’s critics have focused on comments he purportedly made at a 2007 dinner for Yale alumni in favor of the use of Shariah law in U.S. courts. But those at the event have said Koh did not make any such comments.

“[Koh] never said that Shariah law could or should be applied in the United States,” said Robin Zorthian ’76, the organizer of the dinner, in an interview earlier this month.

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has yet to set a date for Koh’s confirmation hearing.


  • SYSenior

    Great work Derek!

  • Scott J

    Does Starr know Starr has endorsed Koh? Last I checked, Starr actually thinks our Constitution should have some relevence.

  • o rly?

    Kenneth Starr a "conservative icon"? Where did you get that?

  • Recent Alum

    I wonder what is in this endorsement for Starr personally -- I know from having read Starr's book on judicial activism that he cannot possibly believe Koh is a viable choice for any legal position in government, so I must assume Starr had some other personal motive for his endorsement. If he expects Obama to nominate him to a federal judgeship, he will be sorely disappointed.

  • Susan McDougal

    Kenneth Starr wears mismatched socks,The senile old fart had me locked up for …
    No reason

  • Anonymous

    #4, Starr is the dean of Pepperdine's law school…perhaps he is just being a gracious colleague?

  • Recent Alum

    #6: Funny how conservatives always try to be "gracious colleagues" when far-left academics are nominated, but whenever a conservative academic is nominated to anything, liberals are everything BUT "gracious colleagues" (as Robert Bork knows far too well). Perhaps conservatives should stop being unilaterally gracious if they want to stay relevant.

  • YLS grad

    Starr joins many conservatives and Republicans in endorsing Koh. Super-heavyweight conservative lawyer Ted Olsen was one of the first out of the box with a strong defense of Koh:

    Four high-ranking Republican government lawyers sent this letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 2:

    Unsurprisingly, Yale Law School conservatives and Federalist Society members strongly support Koh (who has been very supportive of conservatives and Fed Soc as dean):

    Their statement reads as follows:


    In the past few days, conservative pundits have filled the airwaves with vocal opposition to Harold Koh's nomination as Legal Adviser to the State Department. As conservative students at Yale Law School, we have long disagreed with Dean Koh's views on international law, but we are both surprised and disappointed by the virulent tone and false claims we are hearing from some of Koh's opponents. In response to these deceitful and incendiary attacks, we feel compelled to say a few words on his behalf.

    Dean Koh has been very supportive of conservative students and conservative student organizations. He has mentored conservative students, participated in Federalist Society events, and gone out of his way to include conservatives and their ideas in classroom discussions. Dean Koh has always been not only forthright and honest about his views, but also fair and solicitous of conservative opinions in public and private.

    He is also an honorable man and eminently qualified to serve. He is a widely respected lawyer and academic who has thought deeply about international law and served with distinction in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He has a passion for public service that he passes on to students of all political views. Dean Koh is one of the brightest legal minds of his generation, a credit to the profession we look forward to joining, and an able and effective public servant.

    As conservatives, we do ourselves no favors when we adopt a shrill tone or make dishonest arguments against such people. For instance, the claim that Dean Koh would apply Sharia law in U.S. courts is simply absurd. While we were not present when he allegedly spoke on the subject, we are thoroughly acquainted with his views on
    transnationalism and find it impossible to believe that he would say such a thing.

    Turning distinguished and dedicated public servants into boogeymen is nothing but dishonorable, and it has no place in American conservatism."

  • Anonymous

    The plus to all of this is getting Koh out of the law school. Perhaps some of these "conservatives" supporting the decision to award him a mid-level patronage job in Washington are merely being pragmatic: it is far more important to remove this ideologue from the leadership of one of the nation's most important law schools.

  • Observer

    #9, this actually makes a lot of sense, at least if you assume that his current appointment is not a stepping stone to something much bigger like a COA appointment.

  • Anonymous

    I love reading all the paranoid right-wingers on this page coming up with all kinds of conspiracy theories for why conservatives would defend Harold Koh. Give it up, guys - it just turns out Koh isn't the boogeyman you thought he was. Maybe next time you'll think twice before believing everything you read in a blog post that's already been refuted by the whole rest of the world?