On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Joshua Geltzer ’05 woke in 304 Walker Hall to the sound of his phone ringing. The call was from an aunt he rarely heard from.
“I just want you to know your parents are all right,” she said.
“Why wouldn’t they be?” asked Geltzer, the son of two New York lawyers who were frequently in downtown Manhattan.
“Do you have a television?” his aunt replied.
Until that moment, Geltzer had been a bright-eyed freshman trying to decide whether to major in classics, literature, or one of the social sciences. Sept. 11, he said, gave him a “pretty firm shove” toward the policy world, a path led him to the Woodrow Wilson School, King’s College London, Yale Law School, work in the federal government, and his latest role as the founding executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center.
At Princeton, Geltzer thrived at the Wilson School. A course in law and public policy with now-President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 exposed the young Geltzer to case law and the dynamics of the court system for the first time. A seminar in policymaking with former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards opened Geltzer’s eyes to how the congressional agenda is actually set — with public debate driven by competing narratives. His senior thesis won the Myron Herrick Prize for best thesis in the Wilson School.
Geltzer eventually graduated at the very top of his class and, along the way, met his future wife, Katherine Boone ’05. A Marshall Scholar, Geltzer then opted to pursue a Ph.D. in war studies at King’s College London. The program’s interdisciplinary approach and its mix of real-world policy practitioners reminded Geltzer of what he liked so much about the Wilson School. The title of his dissertation was “Al-Qaeda as Audience: Signalling in U.S. Counter-terrorist Policy & the al-Qaeda World-view.”
While Geltzer had never envisioned a career in law, as he delved deeper into counterterrorism policy, the line between policy and law faded. In 2008, he headed to Yale Law School, where he made national-security law his focus. A few short years later, Geltzer found himself personally involved in sorting out some of the highest profile issues of national-security law.
As counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security in the Department of Justice, Geltzer dealt with the fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations, which Geltzer said caused the country “some real harm,” with the vast majority of what was revealed having little to do with Snowden’s “constitutional quibbles.” (Geltzer still hasn’t brought himself to watch the Oliver Stone movie Snowden, which he said would be a “frustrating two hours.”)
Later, as deputy legal adviser to the National Security Council, Geltzer helped lead a review of the U.S.’s policies for handling overseas hostages. The review came at the request of former President Barack Obama following a series of horrific beheadings. And as senior director for counterterrorism on the NSC, Geltzer played a role in crafting the country’s strategy for dealing with ISIS.
With the advent of Donald Trump in the White House, Geltzer is beginning what he describes as a “new form of public service.” While his previous work saw him standing up for executive branch power, the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection takes advantage of that experience to inform where the line on that power should be drawn.
“At times, the campaign and Donald Trump in particular called for things that flew in the face of law or pushed the boundaries of what was legally permissible,” said Geltzer, who saw Trump’s initial executive order halting entry for 90 days by citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen as a sign that Trump’s calls to action wouldn’t be “limited to campaign trail rhetoric.”
Geltzer hopes the new institute will find a voice both in the courts and the public square and “use the power of the courts to defend American constitutional rights and values.”