The U.S. Senate sealed former Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh’s bid to become the top lawyer at the Department of State following a June confirmation vote.
The 62–35 vote to confirm ended an unexpectedly heated three-month confirmation battle in which some Republicans alleged Koh would subvert American sovereignty in favor of international law in his new position. Senators split mostly along party lines, with five Republicans joining the Democratic majority in favor of Koh’s nomination.
“I feel like I am setting sail on a thrilling new adventure,” Koh wrote in an e-mail message to the Law School community following the June 25 vote. “One former Legal Adviser once described his job as ‘speaking law to power.’ I pledge to you to do my very best to bring the enduring values of our Law School to serve our country in facing its global challenges.”
The vote came three days after University President Richard Levin announced the appointment of Koh’s successor, Robert Post LAW ’77, who took office July 1 as the 16th dean of the Law School.
Although Koh received the Senate’s unanimous support when he was nominated for the position of assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor under the Clinton administration in 1998, Koh’s return to public service over a decade later proved more contentious.
Several Republicans had sought to block Koh’s nomination in the spring, both while it was under consideration by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and when it came before the full Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issued an ultimatum to Senate Republicans on June 22, saying he planned to force a vote on Koh’s nomination that week.
A motion to invoke cloture on Koh’s nomination passed June 24, ending the threat of a Republican filibuster and paving the way for Koh’s confirmation.
“I really regret that some of the accusations and insinuations against Dean Koh have simply gone over any line of reasonableness or decency,” Sen. John Kerry ’66 said before the cloture vote. “Dean Koh deserves a better debate than he has been given thus far.”
Much of the criticism aimed at Koh centered on comments he allegedly made at a 2007 Yale alumni dinner indicating his support of the use of Shariah law in U.S. courts. Those at the event denied that Koh had made such comments, but that did not stop an outpouring of criticism.
The Foreign Relations Committee voted 12 to 5 to send Koh’s nomination to the full Senate. The committee split down party lines; only Sen. Richard Lugar, the committee’s ranking Republican, joined the Democratic majority in support of Koh.
Lugar and four other Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Mel Martinez of Florida, Olympia Snowe of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio — backed Koh’s nomination in the June 25 floor vote. Senate Democrats unanimously voted in favor of Koh’s confirmation, with the exception of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Sen. Robert Byrd, who were absent because of illness.
With his appointment now official, Koh has taken a public service leave from his professorship.
“Yale Law School’s great loss is the nation’s great gain,” Post said in a statement following the vote. “Our thoughts and prayers go with Harold as he begins this new journey. We have confidence that he will make enormous contributions to the development of the rule of law in the world.”
Koh has said he plans to return to the Law School faculty when he leaves the State Department.
Zeke Miller contributed reporting.