Bring on the Deans!

With Yale Law Dean Harold Koh’s nomination as State Department Legal Adviser, the Obama administration has tapped the deans of the country’s top two law schools, and is populated by numerous law professors, including, of course, the president himself. There’s nothing new in that observation, but it was still of interest to a European law professor who was visiting Temple Law School yesterday. In his country, there’s no such intermingling between academia and government — the executive bureaucracy remains in place regardless of electoral outcomes; a new political party in power leads to change at the very top but otherwise few shifts occur. Though there may be some efficiency benefits to a permanent bureaucracy, I can’t say that I see much more to recommend it, and nor could our guest. While permanent executive officers would develop significant expertise in the subject area relevant to their post, I can’t imagine that luminaries such as Koh and Kagan, with not only deep knowledge but also serious candle-power, would migrate in large numbers to such positions. A permanent bureaucracy might result in increased ideological stability, without the migration between the left and the right that we see in the U.S., but I query whether this outcome is possible (can permanency eliminate political inclinations or does it simply entrench them?) or even desirable. At least in our system of government, the executive branch should be responsive to the will of the people, and the cyclical shifts in ideological inclinations help to moderate extreme influences on both sides of the political spectrum. As long as excellence and experience, rather than ideology, are the central rationales for selection of political appointees, these swings should improve governance in the long run, by bringing in fresh ideas and new perspectives every four to eight years. So bring on the deans, I say — our government will be a richer place for it.

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2 Responses

  1. A.W. says:

    Sorry, Koh seems like a nice guy, but too much of an internationist weenie for my blood. I am just glad he won’t actually have any decision making power over national security. But i worry about his influence.

  2. Jaya says:

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by the term “internationalist weenie” but if you are referring to Koh’s exceptional expertise in international law as well as his belief in the existence and value of international law, I think you’re right about the internationalist part. Moreover, given the tone of your comment, I’m guessing that you didn’t vote for Obama — in which case, it’s not reasonable to expect that his political appointees would reflect your ideological preferences. In my view, the best you can hope for is that a president of opposing ideology appoint candidates with deep expertise in the relevant field, exceptional intellectual capacity, and serious integrity; Koh exemplifies all three.