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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.

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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.