Two NYU Law faculty returned to the classroom last fall after stints in the White House. Charles L. Denison Professor of Law David Kamin ’09 served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the National Economic Council from January 2021 to May 2022, and Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties Erin Murphy was senior policy advisor for criminal justice at the Domestic Policy Council from September 2021 to August 2022. In interviews, Kamin and Murphy discussed their recent experiences in government.
Tell us about your role as deputy director of the National Economic Council.
We worked both at running processes and keeping up with senior decision-makers in the White House. The day-to-day was a mix of working toward executing President Biden’s vision for strengthening the economy over the medium and long term, and also responding to the immediate economic crisis that he faced coming into office as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was working on the infrastructure bill that ended up getting enacted and the reconciliation bill, which had many different formulations, but ended up becoming law. When it came to responding to the immediate economic crisis that the country was facing as a result of COVID, much of my work centered on the American Rescue Plan and the immediate support for the economy and investment in public health.
Day in and day out, in addition to research, fact sheets, and meetings, other challenges arose which were not foreseen on the day that Biden took office. Those challenges ranged from the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and all of the economic effects that followed.
How has your work in the White House informed your teaching?
I really try to infuse my classes with some kind of real-world experience that I’ve had and seen while working in government. Some of my students will end up working in government, and some others will end up practicing before government agencies. And I hope that teaching classes this way—infusing my experiences in government and dealing with government lawyers, government policymakers, and people on the outside trying to influence the government—can help students be better at pursuing policy and making change in the world. Ultimately, I hope it makes them better practicing lawyers.
What goals did you have at the Domestic Policy Council?
It was so exciting to be in a job where the knowledge and experience that I have acquired in my field could have a much more direct impact at the systemic level and on people’s lived experiences.
It also turned out to be an incredibly interesting time to work on these issues. I entered this role in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and left just as the GOP was framing up the midterm election in “tough on crime” terms reminiscent of the 1990s. The president had run on a clear agenda of supporting law enforcement, but also reforming law enforcement, and especially on promoting racial equity, and his policy decisions throughout the year reflected that. But it made our jobs all the more delicate as we were processing inputs from so many divergent and often-conflicting constituencies.
This was especially true of my major issue areas: marijuana and policing, both of which culminated in concrete, highly impactful actions by President Biden. In May 2022, the president signed an executive order on effective, accountable policing and criminal justice reform, and in October, he pardoned federal and DC marijuana possession convictions and initiated a rulemaking to revisit the classification of marijuana as a highly controlled substance. Both were bold, courageous steps, and both ended up garnering widespread praise. As part of the team that helped bring both to fruition, I found that incredibly rewarding.
What are you looking forward to next in your career?
I hope I continue to stay connected to that world of government, and to my colleagues at the White House who dazzled me daily with their brilliance and dedication. For now, though, I am really excited to be liberated to my academic tower where I can set my own agenda and really drill down on and research questions that I wanted to explore more deeply. Plus, my phone rings a lot less!
These interviews have been condensed and edited. Posted September 11, 2023