News & Events

Print/PDF this page:

Print Friendly and PDF

Share this page:

Dean Koh Honored by Connecticut Law Tribune

Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh is this year’s recipient of the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Service to the Profession Award. Dean Koh, who awaits confirmation as Legal Adviser to the U.S. State Department, is one of 16 attorneys being honored by the newspaper Thursday evening, May 20. Hamden attorney Judith Hoberman, who has taken on many elder law cases free of charge, will receive the newspaper’s Pro Bono Award, and 14 attorneys who filed suit against Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell to block her attempt to use money from the Judicial Branch’s Client Security Fund to help balance the state budget will share in the Publisher’s Award.

 

The Connecticut Law Tribune is a weekly newspaper covering Connecticut’s courts, law firms, and legislature. It published the following profile of Dean Koh in its May 18, 2009 issue:

 

A Career Devoted To Human Rights, World Law; Harold Hongju Koh stands by his principles, even in face of criticism

By Thomas B. Scheffey

 

When the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee met April 28 to consider President Barack Obama’s pick to be the top lawyer in the State Department, the senators praised Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh in the highest terms.

 

The committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry, called him “one of the foremost legal scholars in the country—a person of the highest intellect, integrity and character.”

 

While quizzing him on complex policy issues and sensitive treaty topics, the senators recognized he was both richly credentialed as an international law scholar, and had the engaging personal attributes to turn thought into actual accomplishment.

 

But even as praise was being heaped upon Koh, he was being strafed in the blogosphere and on TV for allegedly being such a proponent of principles of international law that he would be against Mother’s Day, and might choose Islamic sharia law over the U.S. Constitution.

 

Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, quoted from a fresh article in Time magazine that this incendiary media commentary “would be fairly standard ratings-chasing melodrama, except that prominent members of the GOP like Karl Rove and former U.N. ambassador John Bolton” were saying much the same thing.

 

A handful of other conservatives, however, stepped up to endorse Koh, and he was approved by the committee, with Lugar joining the Democrats. As of late last week, it was still unclear whether Koh would survive the vote of the full Senate.

 

But even if he falls short, the Law Tribune’s Editorial Board believes Koh has achieved enough to be named this year’s winner of the Service to the Profession Award.

 

In a recent interview, he spoke briefly about his time in the dean’s office.

 

“In terms of the school, I think we’ve had a great five years. In a way I felt I was repaying my debt to the school, and for everything it did for me and my family,” Koh said earlier this year. “For years, I’ve told the students they have an obligation to promote a more humane globalization, and now I’m being asked to do that [in Washington]. How can I say no?”

 

Korean Roots

 

For many an academic, the recent bare-knuckle political brawling would be highly intimidating. But Koh seemed to take it in stride. He has been up against much more threatening adversaries before.

 

The seeds of Koh’s accomplishment were planted before he left his native South Korea as a child. His father was serving as minister to the U.S. in the first democratically elected government of South Korea.

 

As Koh has recounted in a law review article, a military coup overthrew the democratic government of South Korea’s Prime Minister Chang Myon, and Chang was taken under house arrest amid rumors that he would shortly be executed.

 

“To plead for Chang’s life, my father brought Chang’s teenaged son to see Walt W. Rostow, then the Deputy National Security Adviser to the president. As my father recalled, Rostow turned to the boy, and told him simply, ‘We know where your father is. Let me assure you, he will not be harmed.’

 

“Rostow’s words stunned my father, who simply could not believe that any country could have such global power, reach and interest. The story so impressed my father that he repeated it on countless occasions as I grew up, as proof of the exceptional goodness of American power.”

 

Koh’s father, the late Dr. Kwang Lim Koh, lost his job when a military government came into power. Rostow, aware that the elder Koh was unemployed with six children, alerted his brother Eugene, then the dean of Yale Law School, who hired Dr. Koh and his wife to teach there.

 

So Harold Koh grew up in New Haven, attending the upscale private Hopkins School and overcoming a battle with polio. He went to Harvard and then Harvard Law School, before clerking for longtime Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, whom Koh described as someone who “became the voice of the voiceless.” He also briefly served as a Justice Department lawyer in the Reagan administration.

 

Along the way, he clearly internalized his father’s fierce belief in commitment to principles and his sense of gratitude for the power and potential of the United States.

 

While writing eight books and 150 articles on international law, Koh, who joined the Yale Law School faculty in 1985, also did battle in the courts. Using the ancient Alien Tort Claims Act, originally designed to punish marauding pirates in colonial days, Koh and his Yale human rights clinic students targeted torturers and warlords in federal courts.

 

During the George H. W. Bush administration, Koh faced off against the Justice Department, arguing that it was a violation of international law to capture fleeing Haitian refugees on the high seas and incarcerate them at Guantanamo Bay.

 

When the same practices continued, Koh went to court against the Clinton administration’s Justice Department. The legal battles were fierce, and Koh was threatened with financial sanctions that could have a left him essentially broke. He repeatedly prevailed in court, but resigned himself to having burned any bridge to a governmental career, having so publicly opposed both parties.

 

But Koh’s evident commitment to human rights principles, above and beyond politics, turned out to be more an asset than a liability. Unexpectedly, he got a call in 1998 from then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright, offering him the position of assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, where he served through the end of the Clinton administration. Albright told Koh he was picked because it was obvious he didn’t place politics over principle.

 

“The irony was, because I had a reputation of not doing what I was supposed to do,” he said, “I have this opportunity again.”

 

Great Tradition

 

Koh is looking forward to a return to Washington to head what he considers to be the world’s largest and best international law firm. In doing so, he’s continuing a long tradition of Yale Law School deans blending scholarship and public service.

 

During Koh’s five-year tenure as dean, Yale was consistently ranked the nation’s top law school. Koh hired top scholars to expand the school’s international law program, and increased the number of public services fellowships available for graduates. These allow students, many with substantial student loan debt, to engage in government or public interest law without undue hardship.

 

“What my mother said to me was that it’s the job of the most privileged to serve the least privileged,” said Koh. “In my welcoming address to students, I tell them that.”

 

His tenure at Yale has not been without controversy. He angered conservatives, for example, by standing up for a ban on military recruiters on the law school campus.

 

“Promoting diversity of all kinds is a very high priority for me,” Koh told the Yale Daily News in a 1997 interview. But he declined to comment as to whether ideology is a factor in his own decision-making about faculty members. He brushed off such complaints by saying, “You can’t make everybody happy.”

 

That credo would seem to apply to the recent debates in Washington over Koh’s nomination. Last month, when he went before the foreign relations committee, Kerry read a recommendation from a group of former high-ranking military officers, recognizing Koh’s lifelong defense of the rule of law and human rights: “Dean Koh understands that it is not a rule of law if it is invoked only when it is convenient, and it is not a human right if it applies only to some people.”

 

In his testimony before the senators, Koh cited three lessons he has learned in the nation that gave his family refuge. The first, he said, is “that obeying the law is both right and smart for nations as well as individuals.

 

“Second, respecting constitutional checks and balances in foreign affairs defends our Constitution and leads to better foreign policy.

 

“Third,” Koh concluded, “making and keeping our international promises does not surrender our sovereignty, but promotes it — and makes us safer in a global world.”