Ekow Yankah, a prominent voice in criminal law and political philosophy, joins Michigan Law faculty.

In 1997, Ekow Yankah left the University of Michigan as a 21-year old clutching an undergraduate degree in political science and law school ambitions.

He returns 25 years later the father of two school-aged children, a sought-after expert on criminal law and political philosophy, and the Law School’s new Thomas M. Cooley Professor of Law. 

“I’m deeply in love with the University of Michigan,” said Yankah. “It’s hard to think of a school more intellectually invigorating, where I can engage in deep conversations with legal philosophers, African American studies faculty, or political scientists to inform my work.”

It feels important to share scholarly work in a way that has an impact. As intellectuals, part of our job is to drill deep on societal problems, but I also think we need to focus on how we can expand this into the public space.

Yankah will also have a faculty appointment with the Department of Philosophy, housed inside the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Born in the United States, Yankah spent a portion of his childhood in Ghana before being raised in Michigan by a single mother—who, coincidentally, moved the family to the United States to fulfill her own dreams of becoming a lawyer.

After graduating from U-M, Yankah earned a JD from Columbia University and a BCL from Oxford University. 

He spent the last 14 years as an award-winning professor at the Cardozo Law School in New York.

Bringing criminal law and political philosophy to the public space

Spurred by an earnest interest in criminal law and political philosophy, Yankah has emerged a respected voice in both areas.

He has penned articles on the justification of punishment, race and policing, and mass incarceration for noted publications such as the NOMOS, Ratio Juris, and Harvard Law & Policy Review among others, while leading media outlets regularly call upon him for thoughtful insight and analysis on criminal law.

“I never had the goal of being a talking head, but it feels important to share scholarly work in a way that has impact,” Yankah said. “As intellectuals, part of our job is to drill deep on societal problems, but I also think we need to focus on how we can expand this into the public space.”  Yankah has written for outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post and appeared on NBC and the BBC.

To that end, Yankah is working to complete his first book exploring the ways in which political rights and duties are reciprocal. 

“It’s not just about the rights we have, but the duties we have to live together as civic equals, including how that manifests itself in criminal law,” said Yankah of the book, which is tentatively titled For We Are All Bonded: Political Obligation, Franchise, and Criminal Law.

Such legal and philosophical exploration has long fascinated Yankah, whether the questions apply to Obamacare, mask mandates, or gun laws.

“Done at its best, drilling deep into these questions is about making progress and bringing out the best arguments,” he said. “These are issues worth our time, attention, and energy because they touch so many aspects of our daily lives.”

Yankah aims to bring this same inquisitive spirit into the classroom with his Michigan Law students, investigating questions such as: What is the line between morality and law? What are the trade-offs between security and privacy? What is the difference between unhappy accidents and situations where someone owes another compensation?

“After we wrestle the law to the ground, I want to roll up our sleeves and think about the theoretical commitments within these doctrines,” said Yankah, who will teach courses on criminal law, criminal procedure, policing and race, jurisprudence, and torts. 

Protecting voting rights and democratizing political campaign financing 

Notably, Yankah also brings his scholarship into the civic arena, where he has developed expertise in voting rights and election law.

From 2008 to 2020, Yankah served as co-chair of the New York Democratic Lawyers Council (NYDLC), a coalition dedicated to protecting and advancing the fundamental right to vote. In 2020, the NYDLC awarded Yankah the Guardian of Democracy Award for his efforts championing voting rights.

In 2021, state leaders in New York appointed Yankah chair of the state’s newly established Public Campaign Finance Board.

The bipartisan board, which Yankah calls “an effort to democratize political aspirations,” is charged to administer the nation’s largest program of public matching funds for candidates seeking state office.

“I feel it is important I use my training and skills in a direct way and pursue work that has impact,” Yankah said. “I am not interested in simply writing about these ideas in the abstract, but proud to be doing something tangible and answering the call to be civically engaged.”

Daniel P. Smith