I think my wife has a thing for Harold Koh. She’s not alone. One of our neighbors also glows at the mere mention of the name. They were talking about Koh the other day, and I had to leave the room. What’s he got that makes groupies of women in late middle age?
Koh was just confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee to serve as the top legal advisor to the State Department. Confirmation is likely but not a sure thing. Up from the swamps of jingoism rises gaseous noise that Koh is too much of a "transnationalist" to serve the national interest. Oh, for the good old days of William Jennings Bryan at State. Now there was a man who knew our place in the world and the cosmos.
I was prepared to overlook this glow about Koh among those near and dear to me. I understand its source. Koh’s kids went to school with our kids. He is a good dad, and, therefore, by extension, a good human being. He is reportedly considerate in little things: recalling a name, making time for the exchange of the small courtesies that make life sweet.
But then I started to see Koh’s name on the shortlist of those in the running for a seat on the United States Supreme Court.
Koh does glow, all right. But is he just another "cookie-cutter" candidate?
A friend turned me on to Chris Matthews the other day. I’d only seen him once or twice before. He struck me as all bluster, another raging nitwit surfing in the wake of Rush Limbaugh. You know the type, fuel up on testosterone in the morning and then spend the day pointing and shooting at every red herring swimming by. But Matthews is no right-wing nutcase. No, he’s a liberal nutcase. Okay, okay. Minds across the ideological spectrum come in all forms. Some are supple and graceful; some come in the Matthews-Limbaugh form.
Matthews did coin a nice expression amid his screeching. He referred to a potential nominee for justice as a cookie-cutter candidate, no doubt referring to her race and ethnicity. Koh is exotic by the standards of mainstream. Isn’t it time for an Asian-American justice?
But what of the real cookie-cutter that molds any candidate for justice, regardless or race, ethnicity or gender? If you want to rise to the top of the law’s pyramid, it seems as though you must climb the right steps: Ivy undergraduate degree; law school at Harvard or Yale; perhaps a finishing stint at Oxford or Cambridge; clerkship to a federal judge, preferably a Supreme Court justice; and then time spent in the silver-lined trenches of academia, the government or a big firm. Only once a candidate has been homogenized on this conveyor belt and certified as grade A white shoe does a name emerge as fit to sit on the nation’s high court. Koh has been so certified; why, he’s even served as Dean of the Yale Law School.
What a scam.
I’ve only met a few of these masters of law’s universe. Yet I spend a part of almost every working day in a courtroom representing the folks who serve as the "fact patterns" for the law’s elite. I’ve never met the likes of Koh in the well of a court. For the life of me, I cannot see why a life spend atop the law’s pyramid makes one fit, or even capable, of seeing what goes on in the shadows most folks live in day by day.
I favor President Obama’s call for a pragmatic jurist on the court. The law’s ideologues are tedious boors; we’ve long since buried Robert Bork. The specter of revenging his death as a potential justice is chilling. And empathy is a good thing, too. But I don’t want fellow feeling laced with paternalism.
Koh’s parents may well have come here to flee persecution. But once they arrived, they settled into comfortable lives as academics. Koh grew in a grove far more sheltered than anything most of us can imagine.
My most vivid memory of Koh is not a good one. I have twice written to him requesting guidance as a practitioner. Where can I learn more about international law, I asked? Both missives went unanswered. I live hidden in the law’s shadows; so hidden that my requests for assistance are mere static. Like most Americans, I was not assembled at the right status factory. I just can’t glow about a Koh most of us will never know.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.