Setting the Bar

Sarah H. Cleveland

Checks and Balances

As counselor on international law at the U.S. Department of State, Professor Sarah Cleveland is making an impact and gaining insights that will benefit future students

By Amy Miller

Fall 2010

Professor Sarah H. Cleveland felt like she knew a fair amount about Washington, D.C.–style negotiations before she accepted a two-year appointment to serve as a legal adviser at the State Department in 2009. She had seen the wheels in motion as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun from 1993 to 1994, when
she watched justices build alliances for certain positions and attempt to fend off
their opposition.

That process was fairly elaborate, Cleveland says, but it was nothing compared to the back and forth that unfolds inside the State Department. “I had no idea how complicated the executive branch is or how many competing interests are at play inside the executive branch,” says Cleveland, the Louis Henkin Professor of Human and Constitutional Rights and co-director of the Human Rights Institute at
Columbia Law School. “It makes decision-
making very challenging. But it also makes it really fascinating.”

Working to garner and develop support among competing interests is just part of what Cleveland does as counselor on international law with the Office of the Legal Adviser. She also provides critical legal advice to top government officials on issues ranging from the closing of Guantanamo Bay to the use of force, and she works on international law–related litigation in federal courts, including the Supreme Court. At the same time, Cleveland is trying to strengthen U.S. positions in international institutions. (She was part of the first U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva last September.) And when news breaks anywhere in the world, whether it’s a coup in Kazakhstan or a volcanic explosion in Iceland, she could be asked to offer legal advice.

Cleveland admits that planning her day amounts to a futile effort. “I leave the
office having dealt with five things that I never expected to come up,” the Alabama native says.

She works closely with the State Department’s top lawyer, Harold Hongju Koh, who oversees approximately 175 attorneys. Cleveland and a core group of advisers help Koh prepare for morning meetings with the secretary of state and for discussions with senior White House staff or various ambassadors. She also works with foreign officials, Congress, and the White House, and serves as a liaison to the Office of the Solicitor General at the Department of Justice, and to the Defense Department.

So it is no surprise that Cleveland spends a lot of time in policy meetings. The good news, she notes, is that these are the kinds of meetings where plenty of work gets done. “They’re extremely efficient,” Cleveland says. “They start on time; they end on time, and actions are taken.”

All the meetings, and the expansive nature of her job description, do not leave Cleveland as much time as she would like for independent research. But she is excited to be working in the areas of government that she has dealt with as a lawyer and an academic, and the experience may even inspire her to rethink or update some of her past work. Cleveland says the State Department job has given her a more nuanced view of how foreign affairs and human rights policies are made and implemented, and she is eager to share what she has learned with students upon returning to the Law School in 2011.

“Congress has a much more robust role in U.S. international relations than I ever appreciated before working for the government,” Cleveland says. “It is remarkable to watch the Constitution’s separation of powers play out daily between Congress and the executive branch.”

Amy Miller is a staff reporter at Corporate Counsel and The American Lawyer magazines.