Payvand Ahdout, an expert on federal courts who has worked as an attorney at the Justice Department and a clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court, will return to Charlottesville this fall to join the Law School’s faculty.

For the past two years, Ahdout has held fellowships at Columbia Law School, where she also earned her law degree. Her academic path started at UVA as a Jefferson Scholar in the undergraduate program.

“The opportunity to come back to Charlottesville, to come back to UVA in this completely different way — it seemed right,” she said. “I’m really thrilled to be part of such an incredible public law and federal courts faculty.”

Following law school, Ahdout clerked for Judge Debra Ann Livingston on the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the U.S. Supreme Court, was a Bristow Fellow in the Solicitor General’s Office at the U.S. Department of Justice, was a litigator at a New York law firm, and held another academic fellowship at New York University Law School.

The more Ahdout learned from her professional experiences, the more she found there was to learn.

“I had all these questions about how things work: how the government relates to people, how the courts are changing, so I went back to Columbia to start to answer these questions,” she said.

At Columbia Law, where she is an Academic Fellow and Columbia Fellow, her focus has been on the modern federal courts — the structures that compose them and the institutions that are most often before them. She said Ginsburg taught her the importance of understanding the stories behind the cases that rise through the federal courts.

“Justice Ginsburg really cared about the people in every case, and she wanted us to know about the actual thing that led to the legal issues in front of the court,” Ahdout said. “That idea of uncovering everything about a case and looking at a case as more than just a legal issue is what led to my paper, ‘Separation-of-Powers Suits.’”

The paper, which will appear in the Harvard Law Review in the spring of next year, “studies the phenomenon of litigating separation of powers instead of negotiating,” she said.

“What I found is that really in the last 10 to 15 years, courts have been accommodating these claims, and they’re adjusting the boundaries of doctrines that ordinarily would have prevented claims like this from coming up in the courts.”

The recent examples of one lower court enjoining the Obama administration from enforcing Deferred Action for Parents of Americans policy and another halting the Trump administration’s nationwide ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim counties are among numerous checks that, collectively, should be looked at as a firewall against an increasingly powerful executive, she argues.

“The courts are adapting all of these doctrines — standing, ripeness, remedies — in response to presidents taking a new mode that I call ‘enforcement lawmaking’ — taking the tools of enforcement to create something like law or to countermand Congress,” she said.

She said she is continuing to study how separation of powers and sovereignty disputes are litigated.

In another paper, “Direct Collateral Review,” published in the Columbia Law Review, Ahdout identifies an apparent change in the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing of state habeas cases. She noticed that each year since 2015, the court has taken up three to five prisoner challenges to convictions or sentences after they’ve become final from state habeas. The change is a contrast to the past practice of more faithfully deferring to the states on such matters and holds implications for the development of criminal procedure doctrine.

Professor Caleb Nelson, an expert in the federal courts, praised Ahdout’s scholarship.

“Payvand’s work is both careful and creative — two qualities that don’t always go together,” Nelson said. “It is also grounded in deep knowledge of Supreme Court practice. She’s going to be a star, and I’m delighted that she is joining the faculty.”

Dean Risa Goluboff said Ahdout is an emerging scholar whose work is already yielding major insights.

“Payvand’s questions about the federal judiciary, and its relationship to the other branches and the states, are fresh and ambitious. I have no doubt that they will continue to yield important insights,” Goluboff said. “We are delighted to welcome her back to the UVA community as she begins her teaching career.”

Ahdout said she is excited to return to UVA, where she earned a bachelor’s with highest distinction, majoring in economics and government. The Long Island, New York, native raves about her undergraduate experience on Grounds, yet ironically didn’t know much about the University of Virginia when she first applied at the encouragement of a guidance counselor.

“No one I knew went to Virginia,” she explained.  

After receiving an offer from the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, which endeavors to identify, attract and nurture scholars “of extraordinary intellectual range and depth,” and visiting UVA, she couldn’t picture herself anywhere else.

“I went down to Charlottesville, and I felt the magic,” Ahdout said. “I felt like I needed to go to school with the people I met.”

Despite being from a family connected to STEM fields, she has gone her own way in her career.

“My mother is a mathematician, my dad is a physicist, and my brother is an engineer,” she said. “I’m the black sheep who went into law.”

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