Karlan emerged Wednesday as a new hero for liberal law professors across the country for her ability to joust with House members all the while ticking off why she believes Donald Trump should be impeached, making complicated legal philosophies understandable, and raising the ire of supporters of the President. Her testimony also evoked a rare tweet from first lady Melania Trump castigating her for a comment she made that invoked the Trumps’ 13-year-old son, for which Karlan later apologized.
Those who know the 60-year-old Stanford Law professor were not surprised by her testimony and said it was vintage Karlan. Over the years as a legal scholar and Supreme Court advocate she has prided herself on her outspokenness, acknowledging that her candor might hurt her in some quarters.
“I don’t even regret being kind of snarky,” she said, before acknowledging that she’s paid a price for her directness.
“Would I like to be on the Supreme Court? You bet I would,” she told the audience. “But not enough to have trimmed my sails for half a lifetime.”
Karlan, an expert on voting rights and LGBT law among other issues, currently co-directs Stanford Law’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.
Besides a brief stint serving as deputy assistant attorney general during the Obama administration, she has worked her entire career as a law professor and a scholar for liberal groups. She served as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and as a commissioner on the California Fair Political Practices Commission. She has written casebooks and articles and attended both Yale University and Yale Law school.
Friends of Karlan say the hearing overall showcased the talents of a woman devoted to the law and unafraid to speak her mind.
“She is a brilliant advocate, an honest broker, and an eminent scholar,” said David Cole, the National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “She knows constitutional law like Steve Jobs knew computers and Sandy Koufax knew pitching,” he said, adding, “there are few advocates I would less want to see on the other side of one of my cases.”
In October, Karlan’s mix of legal chops and quick wit was on display at the Supreme Court when she argued a case concerning whether federal employment law protects LGBT workers. Representing the LGBT individuals behind the lawsuit, she got into a tangle with Justice Samuel Alito, disarming him with a Saturday Night Live reference.
Alito was asking a long hypothetical about the difference between discrimination based on sex and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He asked: “What if the decision-maker makes a decision based on sexual orientation but does not know the biological sex of the person involved?”
Karlan shot back: “And they are unable to tell anything about the person’s sex?”
Alito replied: “No.”
“So this is Saturday Night Live Pat — as an example?” Karlan asked referring to the androgynous fictional character who appeared in SNL skits in the early 1990s. The skits centered over others’ inability to determine Pat’s sex.
The reference went over Alito’s head. “I don’t know about that,” he said as the room broke up.
Sparring with GOP questioners
Karlan, called to testify by Democrats, made clear in her opening statement that she thinks the President should be impeached.
“Everything I know about our Constitution and its values, and my review of the evidentiary record, tells me that when President Trump invited — indeed, demanded — foreign involvement in our upcoming election, he struck at the very heart of what makes this country the ‘republic’ to which we pled allegiance,” she said.
The evidence, she added, “shows a President who did this to strong arm a foreign leader into smearing one of the President’s opponents in our ongoing election season.”
For Karlan, this was not “politics as usual” but instead a “cardinal reason why the Constitution contains an impeachment power.”
At the start of the hearing, Republican Rep. Doug Collins made the mistake of suggesting that the panel of law professors couldn’t “possibly have digested” the pertinent witness testimony.
Karlan seized on the comment.
“Mr. Collins, I would like to say to you, sir, that I read transcripts of every one of the witnesses who appeared in the live hearing because I would not speak about these things without reviewing the facts, so I’m insulted by the suggestion that as a law professor I don’t care about those facts,” she said.
Later she allowed that she had spent all of Thanksgiving reading transcripts. “I ate like a turkey that came to us in the mail that was already cooked because I was spending my time doing this,” she said.
She also mixed it up with another Republican, Rep. Matt Gaetz, who cited her political contributions. Karlan noted she had given $1,000 to Elizabeth Warren and $1,200 to Barack Obama.
“And you gave $2,000 to Hillary Clinton,” he asked.
“That is correct,” she said.
Gaetz asked her why she had given more to Clinton then the other candidates, but Karlan had had enough of the line of questioning about her campaign contributions or preferences.
“Because I’ve been giving a lot of money to charity recently because of all of the poor people in the United States,” she said.
She later offered a Con Law lesson.
“I should say just one thing, and I apologize for getting a little overheated a moment ago, but I have a constitutional right, under the First Amendment, to give money to candidates. At the same time, we have a constitutional duty to keep foreigners from spending money in our elections. And those two things are two sides of the same coin.”
Yet she mistepped when trying to make the point that presidents aren’t kings. “So while the President can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron,” she said.
The comments prompted an impassioned tweet from the first lady.
“A minor child deserves privacy and should be kept out of politics. Pamela Karlan, you should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it,” Melania Trump wrote.
“Classless move by a Democratic ‘witness’,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham tweeted. “Prof Karlan uses a teenage boy who has nothing to do with this joke of a hearing (and deserves privacy) as a punchline,” she said an added “And what’s worse, It’s met by laughter in the hearing room. What is being done to this country is no laughing matter.”
Later Karlan apologized: “If I can just say one thing. I want to apologize for what I said earlier about the President’s son, it was wrong of me to do that.”
But the professor added a coda to her statement.
“I wish the President would apologize obviously for the things that he’s done that’s wrong,” she added, “but I do regret having said that.”