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Harold Hongju Koh, the lawyer, diplomat and scholar chosen to succeed Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman next July, has an involvement with the law that has blended audacious court advocacy, government service and academics. Kronman said Koh’s appointment “reflects the unanimous judgment of his colleagues that he is the one person best-equipped, by temperament and training, to lead the Yale Law School in the next phase of its life.” Koh’s academic and legal credentials are impressive. A graduate of Harvard College, Harvard Law School and Oxford, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and practiced law with Covington and Burling in Washington, D.C. At Yale, he’s authored over 80 articles and a half-dozen books, including “The National Security Constitution,” which the American Political Science Association named in 1991 as that year’s best book on the U.S. presidency. His ascent to this pinnacle of law and academia is a story of the American Dream. In 1961, Koh’s parents and their six children arrived in New Haven by train, fresh immigrants from Korea, not yet knowing anyone in their new home. His unusual background has given him a keen interest in the rights of refugees, for whom even “inalienable rights” can be illusory. Accepting the 2002 Distinguished Public Service Award from the Connecticut Bar Association, he noted three principles of balancing national security and civil liberties. First, “our government does not spy on us” — domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence are separate, to preserve the rights of the criminally accused. Second, that, except for the vote, roughly the same political and civil rights that citizens enjoy are extended to legally resident aliens. And third, legislative oversight and judicial review act as checks and balances to executive-branch exercise of national security powers. Koh was one of the first to see the potential modern-day use of the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 against foreign tyrants, torturers and human rights abusers. Invoking that law, Koh and other human rights lawyers won a remarkable, unanimous ruling in the 1995 case of Kadic v. Karadzic, in which the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Serb warlord could be sued civilly in a Manhattan federal court for “ethnic cleansing” abuses. Koh’s understanding of government’s power to bully isn’t purely academic. In the mid 1990s, while he was waging emergency appeals on behalf of Haitian refugees in federal court in New York, zealous Justice Department lawyers threatened him with massive financial sanctions, at levels high enough to demolish a law professor’s salary, savings and credit standing. Fortunately for Koh, his legal arguments were anything but frivolous, and no liens were imposed. In fact, in the mid-90s, he repeatedly prevailed on issues of refugees’ rights against Republican and Democratic administrations, before being appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 1998 to 2001. Koh, 48, has made a career of pursuing sane methods to curb international abuses of power, most recently on why countries obey international law. Despite a personal level of accomplishments that would balloon most egos, Koh is remarkably gracious, optimistic and expressive, his colleagues say. Senior 2nd Circuit Judge Jon O. Newman, who authored the Karadzic decision, called Koh “an outstanding choice [to be Yale's dean] — a scholar with a wonderful reputation, recognized for his fine legal mind, leadership skills and vision.” Both of Koh’s parents have taught at Yale Law School, as his sister currently does. She is clinical professor Jean Koh Peters, who married the son of former Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Ellen Ash Peters. Koh is married to Mary-Christy Fisher, a lawyer with New Haven Legal Assistance, and they have two children.

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