Keeping Faith with the Constitution

Pamela S. Karlan is the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law and co-director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at Stanford Law School. Her primary scholarly interests involve constitutional litigation, particularly with respect to voting rights and antidiscrimination law. She has published dozens of scholarly articles. She is also the co-author of three leading casebooks and a monograph on constitutional interpretation: Keeping Faith with the Constitution.

Professor Karlan received her B.A., M.A., and J.D. from Yale. After clerking for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, she practiced law at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. During 2014 and 2015, she served as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice, where she received the Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Service for work in implementing the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor and the John Marshall Award for Providing Legal Advice for work in guiding the department to its new position regarding Title VII and gender identity. Karlan is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers, and the American Law Institute.

On Monday, February 6, 2017, the Rockefeller Center, with support from the Dartmouth Lawyers Association and Dartmouth Legal Studies Faculty Group, hosted a public talk by Professor Karlan to discuss constitutional rights and LGBT- and race-relevant political issues.

Prior to her talk, Nikita Bakhru ’17 sat down with Pamela Karlan for an interview.

Nikita Bakhru (NB): Can you briefly describe the work you do in the field of Public Interest Law? 

Pamela Karlan (PK): I’m a professor of law at Stanford and my work is divided into three big buckets there: 1) teaching standard law school classes; 2) co-directing the Stanford Litigation Clinic – which allows students to litigate live cases in front of the Supreme Court; and 3) working on my scholarship, focusing on constitutional law-related issues and regulation of the political process. I also do a fair amount of pro bono work for similar issues. Recently, I spent two years working in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in Washington, where I was Deputy Assistant Attorney General and oversaw the voting rights and employment discrimination litigation by the federal government.

NB: Looking through the lens of the first role you described, as a law professor, is there any advice you would offer to undergraduate students aspiring to pursue a career in law?

PK: I think law is a great profession that lets you do a lot of good for a lot of people. But, you have to ask yourself if that is what you want to be doing. If you do, students at a place like Dartmouth are all smart enough to be successful lawyers. Though, for a lot of folks, I would recommend taking the time off to teach, travel, or work so that you can figure out what type of lawyer you want to be. Don’t go to law school because you have no idea what to do; it’s not a way to open up a lot of doors, unless you ultimately want to be a lawyer.

NB: What inspired you specifically to pursue a path in law?

PK: I went into law because, the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I read a book by Richard Kluger, called Simple Justice, which is the story that led to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education - the case that held that “separate but equal” held no place in public education. I was captivated by the idea of being a lawyer and working for the NAACP Defense Fund, which is the firm that brought the desegregation cases to the court. I knew I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer and I knew where I wanted to work: racial justice. In that way, I was different because most people, at first, do not know specifically where in law they would like to work.

NB: How do you see the issue of racial justice transforming in today’s political environment?

PK: I think today’s challenges are a reminder that if you follow American history, you’ve seen this before. There have been waves of racist as opposed to egalitarian populism in the past, as well as an anti-immigrant fervor. We’ve seen those things before and it took us a long time to overcome them. A part of my job now as a law professor is to look at ways to prevent that from happening again.

NB: Looking more toward the second bucket you mentioned, could you describe your role at the Stanford Litigation Clinic?

PK: Sure, we as a clinic have represented a wide range of people – consumers in consumer rights cases, criminal defendants, employees in employee rights cases, children in cases involving school systems, and – in probably our best known cases – the defendant in one of the two big cellphone cases in the Supreme Court arguing about whether or not the government can search your cellphone without a warrant. What we look for in the clinic is the opportunity to represent people who would otherwise not have representation. I love to guide and see the students take ownership of the cases.

NB: Lastly, could you speak to your third bucket – your scholarship?

PK: I tend to do most of my writing in regulation of the political process and other constitutional law issues. I have written a bunch of big textbooks and two smaller books. I also write a lot of more specialized scholarship in voting rights; for instance, I recently wrote a piece that explains how to think about the new vote denial cases and how courts sought to evaluate those cases under the provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Submitted by Nikita Bakhru '17, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Communications

The views and opinions expressed and any materials presented during a public program are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Rockefeller Center or constitute an endorsement by the Center.