Profiles in Scholarship

Triple Threat

Public law expert David Pozen has dedicated his career to understanding the complex workings of American government

By Joy Y. Wang

Fall 2013

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Their names may be noticeably different on paper, but more than one acquaintance has asked public law expert David Pozen if he is related to Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. In law school, Pozen became accustomed to explaining that, no, they are not related, but that he was a fan of the well-known legal theorist’s writings on jurisprudence.

During his third year, Pozen unexpectedly received a similar compliment from Posner. “I got an email from him saying that he liked something I had written about tax expenditures and foreign aid,” says Pozen, who joined the Columbia Law School faculty in July of 2012. The piece that caught Posner’s eye was published by the Yale Law Journal, and the judge graciously acknowledged that both men had independently made the same point about the issue, though Pozen had published first.

Posner’s kind words provided Pozen with an auspicious start to an impressive legal career that would quickly span all three branches of American government before leading to academia.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in the suburbs of Boston, Pozen served as a special assistant to U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy during the George W. Bush administration. The senator’s office would often respond to policy speeches given by the president, and, among his other duties, Pozen drafted some of those retorts. “Working with Senator Kennedy during the Bush administration really refined my polemical skills,” he recalls.

Pozen then gained an insider’s perspective on the judicial branch through clerkships with D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Merrick B. Garland and U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who was then serving his final year on the bench.

“It was fun to be with a justice at a time when he was really committed to getting everything on paper,” says Pozen, who clerked for Stevens when the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. “I virtually lived at the Court that year.”

His experience in the executive branch proved no less demanding. As a special adviser to U.S. State Department Legal Adviser Harold Hongju Koh from 2010 to 2012, Pozen analyzed legal issues involving national security and immigration, among other matters.

The soccer aficionado remembers rushing home one evening to catch a much-anticipated match, only to be sidelined by a string of emails from his boss about an emergency brief that needed his attention. “I was told to take my time, don’t rush,” Pozen recalls, “just to get it in by 4 a.m.” He turned off the television and got to work.

“David has a razor-sharp insight into intragovernmental dynamics, and a capacity to frame and analyze problems that is deeply theorized, highly creative, and pragmatic,” says Professor Sarah H. Cleveland, who worked with Pozen at the State Department. She predicts that he will be the leading constitutional governance scholar of his generation.

Pozen’s most recent scholarship, a law review article examining why the government criminalizes the leaking of classified information, yet does little to prosecute leakers, drew the notice of prominent national security expert Ben Wittes, who cited it as “the single best article about leaks I have ever read.” The piece has also garnered coverage in The New Yorker and on NPR, among other media outlets.

“My career path has been a combination of wanting to work in public service and learn how the law works in practice, and wanting to grow as a lawyer,” Pozen says. “I always had a sense that it would make me more interesting as a scholar and teacher.”

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Illustration by Stephen Gardner