Wan Kim, '93: Civil Rights Are Personal and Professional

“Chicago was actually my second choice for law school,” Wan J. Kim, ’93, recently confessed to a classroom of current Law School students. “But I was rejected by Yale,” Kim laughed. It ended up being a good thing. “Whenever I’ve talked to colleagues, the one thing I always come away with is that at Chicago, all ideas were embraced,” Kim explained. “And that’s one of the reasons I’m so high on Chicago.”

As the assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Kim encourages an equally open-minded and thorough approach to the law. In November 2005, he was confirmed as the nation’s first Korean American assistant attorney general, and the first immigrant to hold that position for the Civil Rights Division. Kim credits his parents with inspiring him to pursue a career dedicated to the public interest. “My parents were immigrants, I’m an immigrant, and, to this day, they feel very blessed to have been able to come to the United States. I remember, from a young age, them encouraging me to consider public service, because we have a great debt to this country,” he stated. 

After law school, Kim served as a law clerk with the Honorable James L. Buckley of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, an experience that taught him how legal decisions are reached not only in theory, but also in practice. Since then, he has worked primarily as a trial attorney, first in the DOJ’s Criminal Division, and then as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Kim most recently held the position of deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, where he oversaw the educational opportunities, criminal, and housing and civil enforcement sections, before being named to his current post. “I have been enormously privileged to work in public service at the DOJ for virtually my entire career, and that has given me an opportunity to really focus on trying to determine the core meaning of the law,” he said.

Though he no longer spends his days in the courtroom, Kim makes it a priority to argue at least one case each year in the Court of Appeals. This spring, he will be arguing a case that deals with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a 2000 statute that has been subjected to few enforcement actions. While initially responsible for the enforcement of early civil rights laws, the Division has expanded to support newer statutes such as RLUIPA. In addition to religious liberties, the Division is active in relatively new areas such as human trafficking.

As it works to enforce the fundamental rights guaranteed to all Americans by law, the Division will undoubtedly continue to grow. “If you look back on the history of the Division, it is a history that parallels America, a history that shows that we started in a very bad place,” says Kim. “We’ve made great strides in eliminating some really shameful things that have been done in our country. We’re in a far better place. But we’re also starting to realize that there are many more civil rights issues, and that’s why the Division has grown over the years, even though some might have expected us to actually grow smaller. In many respects the Division represents America’s highest collective ideals. And those are always evolving.”