Law professor Pam Karlan joins U.S. Department of Justice

Feb. 10, 2021, 9:25 p.m.

Professor Pamela Karlan left Stanford Law School on Monday to join the U.S. Department of Justice as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the civil rights division. The division is responsible for upholding civil and constitutional rights for all Americans, which includes enforcing federal statutes that prohibit discrimination.

Karlan, who is a legal pioneer on issues of voting and LGBTQ+ rights, garnered national attention when she testified in the House Judiciary Committee’s first impeachment hearing and was appointed to Facebook’s Oversight Board.

Karlan will return to teaching at the law school in the fall of 2022, according to SLS spokesperson Stephanie Ashe. 

This is Karlan’s second appointment to the DOJ. She previously served in the civil rights division under President Obama from 2014 to 2015. In November, she was selected as a member of the Biden-Harris DOJ agency review team, which guided the incoming administration in its transition. 

“While the law school will greatly miss professor Karlan while she is working in D.C., we are proud of her efforts to lend her immense talents to the Department of Justice,” Ashe wrote in a statement to The Daily. 

The Biden administration has not released a statement on Karlan’s appointment. 

Karlan has a long history of involvement in civil rights and public interest law. She previously worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she served as an assistant counsel and cooperating attorney. She was also a member of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, a body responsible for interpreting and enforcing campaign, lobbying and conflict of interest laws. Karlan declined to comment on her new position and said that she will not be accepting media requests until she gets settled at DOJ. 

“Pam is uniquely qualified to serve in the civil rights division,” said professor Jeffrey Fisher, who has co-directed the law school’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic with Karlan for 15 years. “There are few if any people that have the level of expertise and practical understanding of civil rights law that she has.” 

To date, Karlan has argued nine cases before the Supreme Court and was floated as a progressive favorite for a potential Supreme Court nominee in 2009, though President Obama ultimately nominated Sonia Sotomayor. Most recently, she argued a case that outlawed workplace discrimination against gay and transgender individuals.

While at DOJ, Karlan helped the justice department write an amicus brief in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized gay marriage nationwide. She also received the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service, the DOJ’s highest honor for its employees, following her role in implementing the Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, which invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act and laid the groundwork for Obergefell. 

“No other person I know at the University combines the breadth of scholarly excellence with a record of public service,” wrote political science professor Rob Reich in a statement to The Daily. Reich and Karlan have co-taught the Thinking Matters course THINK 63: “Justice and the University” on-and-off for the past decade. He called Karlan “an inspiration” to both fellow faculty and her students.

In May, Karlan was appointed to Facebook’s 20-member Oversight Board, which makes independent content moderation decisions for the company, such as those regarding misinformation and hate speech. Karlan has resigned from her post to take the DOJ position, though she recently took a leave from the Board to serve on the agency review team and has not been involved in any of the cases on which the Board has already ruled. 

“Not only are people in the government getting somebody who has second to none capabilities, but they’re also getting somebody who is an extraordinary colleague,” Fisher said. “Pam is absolutely tireless in terms of her willingness to help others on their projects and problems, to always lend an ear, an extra hand.” 

While she will be sorely missed by many in the Stanford community, Reich and Fisher emphasized the passion, knowledge and experience that Karlan brings to DOJ. 

“The loss to the University community while Professor Karlan is in Washington will be the country’s great gain,” Reich wrote. 

Contact Georgia Rosenberg at georgiar ‘at’

Georgia Rosenberg is the Vol. 261 executive editor for print. She was previously a Vol. 260 news managing editor and a Vol. 258/259 desk editor for university news. Contact her at grosenberg 'at'!

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