After a long delay, President Biden yesterday nominated Sarah Cleveland to be legal adviser of the Department of State. But good things are worth waiting for: Cleveland is uniquely well-qualified for the position, having previously served in the Office of the Legal Adviser as counselor to the legal adviser from 2009 to 2011.
In addition to an extraordinary resume (her bio is here) and more than 20 years of experience teaching international law and foreign relations law at Columbia Law School and other institutions, Cleveland knows the legal adviser’s office and many of its long-serving senior attorneys, the State Department and many of its senior officials, the Department of Justice and federal courts, the interagency national security lawyering process and players, and many of her legal adviser counterparts in other governments.
If confirmed, Cleveland will be the first confirmed legal adviser in more than two years, since Jennifer Newstead stepped down in April 2019 to become general counsel of Facebook. Cleveland would also be only the second woman to serve as legal adviser in the 90-year history of the office. I should note that Newstead and Cleveland (both former Supreme Court clerks) have set a high bar for future legal adviser nominees—it will be hard to find equally well-qualified candidates in the future!
As I have written in the past, it is important to have a confirmed legal adviser not only to represent the State Department in interagency discussions as well as meetings and negotiations with foreign officials but also to be the voice of the U.S. government on international law issues. When I was legal adviser I gave more than 20 major addresses and wrote blog posts on a range of issues, as did Harold Koh. The last public address by a confirmed legal adviser was Brian Egan’s seminal speech on cyberspace in April 2016—more than five years ago! If confirmed, Cleveland will be an important voice for the U.S. government on international law and human rights.
For all of these reasons, Cleveland is an excellent choice to be legal adviser. She should be confirmed quickly.