Hannity advances dubious claim that Koh “advocates Sharia law in America”

In the past four editions of his Fox News program, Sean Hannity has claimed that State Department legal adviser Harold Koh “advocates the use Sharia law in America.” In fact, that characterization -- originated by a lawyer who claimed that at a 2007 event, Koh said that Sharia law “could, in an appropriate instance ... govern a controversy in a federal or state court in the US” -- has been disputed by both the host of the event where Koh purportedly spoke about Sharia law and by Koh himself.

Hannity repeatedly claimed Koh “advocates the use of Sharia law in America”

Hannity has advanced the claim during the past four editions of his Fox News program. Examples include:

  • On the September 9 edition of his show, citing examples of President Obama's purported “radical associations,” Hannity said Obama has “got another guy that advocates the use of Sharia law in America.”
  • On the September 8 edition of his show, Hannity said “you have a State Department lawyer, Harold Koh, who says the U.S. should follow Sharia law in some cases.”
  • On the September 3 edition of his show, after smearing Obama advisers John Holdren and Cass Sunstein, Hannity said, “You've got Harold Koh, who says the U.S. should follow Sharia law.” Hannity continued: “These are all Obama appointments. What does it say about him, and do you agree with me? I think they should all go. I think they are all inappropriate representatives of this country.”
  • On the September 2 edition of his show, Hannity said, “We've got another guy, for example, a State Department lawyer, Harold Koh, who says that the U.S. should follow Sharia law in some instances.”

Claim first advanced by lawyer in letter posted on conservative website

Claim originated in letter posted on National Review Online blog. In March 2007, National Review Online blogger Carol Innone posted a letter from New York lawyer Steven J. Stein, who attended a Yale University alumni event where he claimed to have heard Koh suggest that Sharia law could be applied in the United States:

Dear Dean Koh:

I attended the dinner of the Yale Club of Greenwich earlier this week. In your discussion of “global law” I recall at least one favorable reference to “Sharia”, among other foreign laws that could, in an appropriate instance (according to you) govern a controversy in a federal or state court in the US. I, for one, oppose following “law” that is not the product of democratic lawmaking processes such as in this country, the Constitution, treaties to which the US is a party, legislative acts, (whether by a congress or a rulemaking authority in the executive branches of government) and, of course, judicial interpretations thereof . You mentioned, en passant, your extensive travels to Muslim countries so I must assume some familiarity with Sharia “law” including its decidedly undemocratic source, i.e., the truth as revealed to a Seventh Century “prophet”. [National Review Online, 3/21/07]

Claim revived by former Bush speechwriter following Koh's nomination. In her March 30 New York Post op-ed, former George W. Bush speechwriter Meghan Clyne wrote: “Judges should interpret the Constitution according to other nations' legal 'norms.' Sharia law could apply to disputes in US courts. The United States constitutes an 'axis of disobedience' along with North Korea and Saddam-era Iraq. Those are the views of the man on track to become one of the US government's top lawyers: Harold Koh.” Clyne cited Stein's letter as the sole evidence of her claim that Koh believes “Sharia law could apply to disputes in US courts.” [The New York Post, 3/30/09]

Koh, event organizer have denied claim that Koh advocated Sharia law

Koh spokesperson: Asked about Sharia law, Koh said that despite their “obvious differences,” different legal systems “share some common legal concepts.” In her op-ed, Clyne wrote that regarding Stein's claims, “A spokeswoman for Koh said she couldn't confirm the incident, responding: 'I had heard that some guy ... had asked a question about sharia law, and that Dean Koh had said something about that while there are obvious differences among the many different legal systems, they also share some common legal concepts.' ”

Event organizer: Stein's account “totally fictitious and inaccurate,” “never did Koh state or suggest that other forms of law should govern ... the American legal system.” Robin Reeves Zorthian, the organizer of the Yale Club event, responded to Clyne's column in a letter published in the following day's New York Post:

I was the organizer of the Yale Club of Greenwich event on March 13, which Meghan Clyne references.

The account given by Steve Stein of Dean Koh's comments is totally fictitious and inaccurate. I was in the room with my husband and several fellow alumni, and we are all adamant that Koh never said or suggested that sharia law could be used to govern cases in US courts.

The subject of his talk was Globalization and Yale Law School, so, of course, other forms of law were mentioned. But never did Koh state or suggest that other forms of law should govern or dictate the American legal system.

Hopefully, your readers are interested in the facts. [The New York Post, 3/31/09]

Event organizer reportedly states Stein “totally mischaracterizing” what Koh said. “But Robin Reeves Zorthian, who organized the Yale event in Greenwich, said Mr. Stein 'was totally mischaracterizing what Dean Koh said.' Ms. Zorthian said Mr. Stein had initiated an animated series of questions with Mr. Koh about international law and raised the issue of Shariah and its place in American law. She said Mr. Koh had said that there were 'common underlying concepts' in many legal systems around the world but that he never voiced support for allowing Shariah to be used in American courts.” [The New York Times, 4/1/09]

Feingold: Koh told me “of course, he doesn't believe ... that Sharia law could control in our country.” During Koh's April 28 confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) stated (accessed from the Nexis database): “And finally, the notion that somehow that Harold Koh reading -- presumably reading an answer regarding the Sharia law issue -- you know, I just read my -- part of my statement. That doesn't mean I didn't mean it. That doesn't mean I don't get it. And I had Harold Koh respond to me several times without any notes eloquently indicating that, of course, he doesn't believe -- (laughter) -- that Sharia law could control in our country."

Koh: “The thing about Sharia law ... is not something that I said.” During Feingold's questioning of Koh, Koh stated: “My scholarly work is extensive. I've said many things. The thing about Sharia law as you pointed out is not something that I said. So I -- I guess that if -- if you're looking for something to disagree with you need to look to something that I didn't say. What I did say is very simple. Obeying the law is right and smart, both domestically and internationally.”

Law professor: Koh “denounces” Sharia in only article of his that mentions it. University of California, Davis law professor Anupam Chander wrote in an April 2 blog post that "[i]n the 71 articles penned by Harold Koh that appear in the Westlaw law review database, there is but one article that mentions Sharia" and in that article Koh “denounces the government of Iran for 'impos[ing] a strict form of Sharia law that denies basic rights to women and minorities.' ”