Executive Session

Floor Speech

By:  John Kerry
Date: June 24, 2009
Location: Washington, DC

EXECUTIVE SESSION -- (Senate - June 24, 2009)


Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, I yield myself such time as I will consume. I intend to yield time to Senator Lieberman and Senator Feingold.

Mr. President, I rise in very strong support of the nomination of Dean Harold Koh to be the Legal Adviser to the Secretary of State. This nomination is, in fact, overdue.

Dean Koh is one of the foremost legal scholars in the country and a man of the highest intellect, integrity, and character. He received a law degree from Harvard, where he was an editor of the Law Review, with two master's degrees from Oxford University where he was a Marshall Scholar.

He clerked on both the DC Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. He has served with distinction in both Democratic and Republican administrations, beginning his career in government in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Reagan era.

I think everybody who has dealt with him and has worked with him on a personal level understands the skill Dean Koh would bring to this job. He has worked with the State Department on a firsthand basis. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Clinton administration--a post for which he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 1998.

He left government to teach at Yale Law School, and he went on to serve as dean until his nomination to serve in the current administration. As a renowned scholar and a leading expert on international law, he has published or coauthored eight books and over 150 articles.

Throughout his career, Dean Koh has been a fierce defender of the rule of law and human rights. He understands that the United States benefits as much if not more than any other country from an international system of law where we are governed by the rule of law.

At the same time, his personal commitment to America's security and to the defense of our Constitution are indisputable. Accusations that his views on international or foreign law would somehow undermine the Constitution are simply unjustified and unfounded--completely and totally. As Dean Koh explained in response to a question from Senator Lugar, who supports his nomination, he said:

My family settled here in part to escape from oppressive foreign law, and it was America's law and commitment to human rights that drew us here and have given me every privilege in my life that I enjoy. My life's work represents the lessons learned from that experience. Throughout my career, both in and out of government, I have argued that the U.S. Constitution is the ultimate controlling law in the United States and that the Constitution directs whether and to what extent international law should guide courts and policymakers.

So while disagreements on legal theory are obviously legitimate, I regret that some of the accusations and insinuations against Dean Koh have simply gone over any line of reasonableness or decency. Some people have actually alleged that Dean Koh supports the imposition of Islamic Shariah law in America, which it just begs any notion of relevance to what is rational.

Some have questioned Dean Koh for allegedly supporting suits against Bush administration officials involved in abusive interrogation techniques. Well, this is a matter for the Justice Department that he will have no role in as Legal Adviser of the State Department.

Others have actually gone so far as to claim--believe it or not--that he is against Mother's Day. I am happy his mother was at the hearing. He pointed to her and had to go so far as to actually deny that, which is rather extraordinary.

Dean Koh deserves a better debate than he has been given thus far, and all of us are done a disservice when the debate gets diverted to some of the accusations we have heard in this case.

Regardless of any policy differences, everyone in the Senate ought to be able to agree on Dean Koh's obvious competence. We have received an outpouring of support for this nomination from all corners, including from over 600 law professors, over 100 law school deans, over 40 members of the clergy, 7 former State Department Legal Advisers--including the past two Legal Advisers from the Bush administration--and many others.

Perhaps most remarkable has been the enthusiastic support for Dean Koh from those who do not agree with him on some issues who have spoken out on his behalf, including former Solicitor General Ted Olson and former White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten. No less a conservative legal authority than Ken Starr wrote:

The President's nomination of Harold Koh deserves to be honored and respected. For our part as Americans who love our country, we should be grateful that such an extraordinarily talented lawyer and scholar is willing to leave the deanship at his beloved Yale Law School and take on this important but sacrificial form of service to our Nation.

So I think that says it all. That is the kind of Legal Adviser we need at the State Department. I urge my colleagues to support this nomination and to vote for cloture on this nomination.


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