- Longtime law professor at Harvard and Stanford Universities
- Lesbian who has has filed amicus curiae briefs in several important Supreme Court cases involving LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender) rights
- Believes that any law which criminalizes the desecration of the American flag constitutes an abridgement of free speech and thus is unconstitutional
- Supports voting rights for convicted felons
- Views the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” whose meaning is subject to change and reinterpretation over the course of time
Born in August 1955 in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, Kathleen Sullivan earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1976. Two years later she graduated as a Marshall Scholar from Oxford University, and in 1981 she earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Upon completing her formal schooling, Sullivan spent one year clerking for Judge James L. Oakes on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She also worked for a brief period as a constitutional litigator in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Next, Sullivan taught for nine years at Harvard University—as an assistant professor from 1984-89, and as a Professor of Law from 1989-93.
In 1993 Sullivan joined the faculty at Stanford Law School, where three years later she became the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law. In 1999 she was appointed dean of Stanford Law, a position she held until 2004, at which time she stepped down to serve as the founder and inaugural director of the new Stanford Constitutional Law Center. That same year, she resumed her post as the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law.
Also in 2004, Sullivan was recruited to practice appellate litigation for Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, a California-based law firm. In July 2005 Sullivan took the California bar exam and failed it. She retook it in February 2006 and passed.
Sullivan is a lesbian who has been open with her students and colleagues about her sexuality. “Homosexuals for years have been the victims of both ‘first-degree prejudice’ and subtler forms of exaggerated we-they stereotyping,” she writes. “It appears, however, that quite a substantial percentage of the population is ‘gay,’ and most of us must therefore interact with homosexuals quite frequently.”
Sullivan has filed amicus curiae briefs in several important Supreme Court cases involving LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender) rights. Among these were Bowers v. Hardwick (a 1986 case that unsuccessfully challenged Georgia’s anti-sodomy laws) and Lawrence v. Texas (a 2003 case that declared laws against consensual sodomy to be unconstitutional). In 2007, Sullivan wrote an amicus brief urging the California Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage.
On another occasion, Sullivan co-authored a brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, contending that a statute that criminalized the desecration of the American flag abridged free speech and thus was unconstitutional.
Sullivan served on the California Governor's Commission on Hate Groups (CHG), which was formed in 1999 and was co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and former California Governor George Deukmejian. This Commission defined hate crimes as acts perpetrated “wholly or partly because of an actual or perceived protected characteristic of the victim -- typically disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.” Characterizing these crimes as widespread throughout California, the Commission urged the state government to “help turn the tide against hate groups” by implementing specialized, taxpayer-funded “training” for executive staff from a host of state agencies, and also for health care workers, educators, social workers, and “crime-victim specialists across the state.”
According to Sullivan and the CHG, California was being overrun by a post-9/11 epidemic of hate crimes targeting “actual and perceived Arabs and Muslims.” The incidence of “anti-Arab/Middle Eastern” hate crimes increased 345.8 percent in 2001, said a CHG publication, while “the number [of hate crimes] reported in the anti-Islamic subcategory increased 2,333.3 percent.” But as separate analyses by Michelle Malkin, Investor’s Business Daily, and National Public Radio have noted, the foregoing CHG numbers were derived from dubious methodology and thus were grossly inflated.
Sullivan also served on the National Commission on Federal Election Reform (NCFER), which was co-chaired by former U.S. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. On July 31, 2001, the Commission released its final report which lamented that only “seventy-one percent of voting age citizens were registered to vote,” in part because “the registration laws in the United States are among the most demanding in the democratic world.” “Voter registration laws,” the report said, “depress voter turnout by raising the cost of the exercise of the franchise.... The primary sufferers of voter registration [requirements] are migrants and the less educated…. The young, the poor, and renters are more likely to move and … less likely to be motivated to register and less likely to have the skills to manage it, giving rise to sizable differences in voter registration by education.”
Sullivan and her fellow Commission members also concluded that measures aimed at verifying the identity of voters at polling places discriminate against low-income and minority voters:
“Signature validation imposes some significant costs on election administrators. Proof of identity places burdens on voters, especially voters who are poorer and urban. At least five percent of the voting age population does not have photo identification.”
Sullivan et al further complained that the “disfranchisement of felons” had created a situation where 4.2 million Americans were ineligible to vote “on account of current or prior felony conviction.” “Felony disfranchisement has particular impact on the African American electorate,” said the Commission report. “Nearly 7 percent of black Americans cannot participate in the electoral process because of a felony conviction.”
Sullivan has praised the late legal scholar John Hart Ely for his assertion that courts must sometimes take an activist, rather than a merely interpretive, role with regard to existing law. Specifically, she lauds Ely for having “argued that it was not enough for courts to ensure clear channels for participation in the political process if certain groups of political participants [most notably homosexuals], even once they were able to participate as a formal matter, could not dispel prejudice that prevented them from finding allies in that process’s ordinary give and take.” Sullivan further paraphrases Ely as having held that courts “should intervene when the political process is undeserving of trust or judicial deference.”
Sullivan views the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” whose meaning is subject to change over the course of time. In 2009 she praised a collection of writings, compiled and published by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS), echoing this “living document” perspective. Said Sullivan: “This edited collection is a treasure trove for those who love the Constitution and believe that its greatest strength is that it was written in broad and majestic generalities intended to be adapted over time to the needs of future generations.”
In June 2008 Sullivan was a featured panelist at ACS's national convention. Other notable guest speakers included Eleanor Acer, Jamie Gorelick, Marcia Greenberger, Wade Henderson, Elena Kagan, John Podesta, and Laurence Tribe.
During the presidency of George W. Bush, Sullivan rejected the Bush administration's differentiation between “enemy combatants” (who were not entitled to Geneva Convention protections) captured by the U.S. in its war on terror, and traditional prisoners-of-war (who were entitled to those protections). She criticized the Bush administration for “having found a congressional authorization for detention of citizens where none clearly exists.” In Sullivan's view, enemy combatants are entitled not only to file petitions for habeas corpus, but are also entitled to due process of law.
After Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced in May 2009 that he would soon retire, speculation arose that Sullivan would rank among President Barack Obama's leading choices as a replacement for Souter. (Sullivan’s concept of a “living” Constitution is consistent with Obama’s perspective.) Obama's nomination, however, ultimately went to Sonia Sotomayor.
Sullivan co-authored, with the late Professor Gerald Gunther, the casebooks titled Constitutional Law and First Amendment Law. She also has published articles on such wide-ranging topics as federalism, religion, speech, equality, and constitutional theory, and has argued before numerous appeals courts as well as the U.S. Supreme Court. The National Law Journal has named her as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America.