State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh’s Remarks at University of Virginia Law School

The Legal Adviser to the Department of State, Harold Koh, delivered the keynote address at a UVA Law School conference on issues of conflicts over sovereign equality on Friday morning.  Notre Dame professor Roger Alford (who delivered a paper on the Lago Agrio Ecuador dispute at the conference) comments on Dean Koh’s speech at Opinio Juris.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his discussion was his spirited defense against accusations of hypocrisy. To the question “Why do you say things you don’t really believe?” he offered several replies.

First, he does no such thing. As he has said elsewhere, “I never say anything I don’t believe…. [I]f you hear me say something you can be absolutely sure that I believe it.”

Second, take what he says in context. He is not speaking as an academic. When he speaks as a Legal Adviser he does so as an advocate. The United States government is the client and he is speaking on behalf of that client. Just as a criminal lawyer will often change roles and serve as a prosecutor, defense counsel, judge, or academic, so too must an international lawyer recognize the different roles that he plays and speak accordingly. Moreover, a U.S. government lawyer must speak with due consideration of what has been said in the past and with due regard for the legal opinions of other lawyers in other U.S. agencies.

Third, sometimes his views have changed. “If there is anything inconsistent between what I said in a footnote when I was 29 and what I said now, then believe me now.” The specific example he gave was about congressional legislation. He said that in the past he often wrote with the assumption that Congress could pass statutes. But having served in Washington long enough he has come to accept that often legislation is simply not an option.

He did not contextualize that comment, so for now one can only speculate as to what he meant. My best guess—and it is only a guess—would be that many of his views about congressional acquiescence to the executive branch articulated in his well-known book The National Security Constitution (published in 1985 when he was 31) are no longer his current views. I say that because the sharpest divergence between Koh the academic and Koh the Legal Adviser comes in the Libya context with respect to the definition of “hostilities” in the War Powers Resolution.

You can judge for yourself whether those replies are persuasive. I personally am sympathetic to all three. I have no way to judge the first, but I have no reason to doubt it either.


Like Alford, I am sympathetic to all three and have no reason to doubt the first; his blog post goes on to other important observations.  But I want to add a comment on the question of where this notion that one speaks differently when one is in government than when one is purely an academic arises.  In Dean’ Koh’s speech, and in Professor Alford’s comment, the locus is the lawyer-client relationship.  Harold Koh is an advocate and, as he said in his UVA remarks (I was also in attendance), that distinct role sometimes means that he must accept that his clients will go for the “lawful but awful” alternative.  Moreover, there is a complicated question as to the hierarchy of legal advice – again, as he stressed, he is the Legal Adviser to DOS, but that makes him a very important lawyer amidst a group of also very important lawyers, including the DOD general counsel, the CIA general counsel, and many others – just in the national security field.

I am, as I indicated, very sympathetic to the position of the government lawyer or, really, policy-maker who must work to a position that is not entirely one’s own and must reflect other people’s views – and yet in the end be supported as the “position” of the administration.  That is hard for academics to swallow, as reactions to Harold Koh’s positions have sometimes shown; but, at the end of day, we academics live in David Lodge novels and have all the authority of the kibitzer. I of course include myself in that assessment.

One reason that the sense of betrayal and hypocrisy over positions that Harold Koh has taken as Legal Adviser has been so acute in some quarters, I believe, is that the academics indeed think of it as being a function of the lawyer-client relationship.  It’s a relationship that academics embrace, in one sense, but in another do not respect it – precisely because at bottom it seems somehow dishonest, insincere, and hypocritical even if a crucial aspect of an adversarial system.  In the context of “legal policy-making” in some loose sense rather than strictly part of the litigation system, it seems to be a bit of a dodge to reach conclusions at odds with one’s professorial declarations by reaching to advocacy for the client.

I don’t think this is the whole story, however.  The obligations at issue are more than just those of the attorney-client.  It is much more profoundly the obligations of a fiduciary – and those fiduciary obligations encompass policy makers in government who have no duties as attorneys.  One enters government at the senior policy-making role (including legal-policy of the kind that inevitably attaches to the general counsel positions, the senior DOJ and OLC positions, and others) as fiduciaries with a public trust.  It is democratically and constitutionally established by the election of the administration to which one belongs – and one is no longer a free agent, intellectually or politically.

One has to operate within the overall policies of this administration – and very often within the traditions, customary interpretations, formal and informal procedures, precedents, and prior decisions and understandings of the department and office.  This is not because it is legally binding strictly, because it might have nothing to do with “law” as such or “legal advice,” but because one is stepping into the shoes of, as Harold Koh once put it in remarking on his own office, a long line of predecessors upon whom others have relied.  The importance of fitting one’s own work within the long-run of the agency or department’s practices and judgments increases the legitimacy and trust that the public has in government; there are exceptions that require sharp breaks from the past, but the default position is that one operates as a fiduciary that looks to the past, sometimes long past, to the present administration and its decision-making, and to the preservation of the legitimacy of the office to the future and future administrations.

That is the obligation of a fiduciary – and it is far beyond the often merely instrumental obligations of the attorney-client relationship to advocate on a client’s behalf.  I have been impressed with Harold Koh’s concern to express that understanding of the role of senior government policy makers and lawyers.  I think he’s right about that, and right to emphasize it as a matter of good faith.  I hope that this understanding will carry over to future administrations, as well, of either party: it is part of the essential long-term coherence and legitimacy that makes democratic governance possible.  But it is far beyond the attorney-client relationship alone. It is a special form of agency, the agency of a fiduciary in a position of political authority.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes