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Until recently, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, often considered the “brains” of the department, has been known mostly to legal experts. But for the past eight years, it was the epicenter of allegations of political manipulation and, worse, the source of infamous memoranda on torture. In tapping Eric Holder as attorney general, President Obama has promised to restore standards of professionalism to the department. For Republicans, this is tantamount to a declaration of partisan war.
On March 19, the nomination of Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen to head the OLC was endorsed by the Judiciary Committee with every Republican voting against her and Sen. Arlen Spector (R-PA) abstaining. The nomination was to have been brought to the Senate floor for a vote on Monday and then again on Wednesday, but it has been held back. Republican leaders, it appears, are playing with the notion of making Johnsen the target of their first filibuster.
The highly credentialed Johnsen is an improbable target, and OLC was long viewed as an obscure post. But Johnsen served as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League. Antiabortion groups have targeted Johnsen over the last three weeks with a massive telephone, email, and letter-writing campaign, demanding that senators oppose her nomination. Johnsen is labeled a “radical, pro-abortion activist,” although her views on the abortion issue line up very closely with the mainstream. While the noise surrounding the Johnsen nomination appears on the surface to be about the abortion issue—over which her position at OLC would have very little influence—discussions with Republican stalwarts reveal that their main concerns lie elsewhere.
The real reason for their vehement opposition is that Johnsen is committed to overturning the Bush administration’s policies on torture and warrantless surveillance, which would clip the wings of the imperial presidency. Even more menacingly (from their perspective), she is committed to shining a light on some of the darkest skeletons of the Bush years. Already, publication of OLC memoranda authorizing torture, approving warrantless surveillance, and pronouncing the First and Fourth Amendments a dead letter in connection with domestic military operations has rocked the public. More memos, potentially even more disturbing, I have learned, are about to be made public soon. Yet these are difficult issues on which to attack Johnsen, other than through vague suggestions that she is “weak on national security.” Hence the steady stream of accusations linked to her largely irrelevant views about abortion rights.
Will the Republicans attempt to filibuster the Johnsen nomination? The threat is sufficiently serious to have provoked the editors of the New York Times to editorialize in support of Johnsen on Thursday. Calling the operation of OLC in the Bush era “lawless,” the editors wrote, “Ms. Johnsen is superbly qualified and has fought for just the sort of change the office needs.”
The controversy surrounding Johnsen provides a flashpoint for President Obama’s nominees for administration legal posts. Unsurprisingly, they look an awful lot like Barack Obama—strong legal credentials, an academic bent, and liberal attitudes balanced by a strong commitment to political pragmatism.
Obama’s top picks start with a couple of well-known Washington names. Eric Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, was a career Justice Department attorney who spent his formative years as a prosecutor in the department’s Public Integrity Section (much-criticized for abuse under Bush). He spent time as a U.S. attorney, a judge, and ran the Justice Department for a while as deputy attorney general in the Clinton years. Obama’s White House counsel, Greg Craig, is a Washington fixture at the powerhouse Williams & Connolly law firm. The former foreign-policy aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy and State Department official has handled high-profile cases from Clinton’s impeachment defense to representing the father of Elian Gonzales. In the way of Washington, he is also has ties to powerful Republicans, including Karl Rove and Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, whom he successfully represented in a sensitive FBI investigation into the leaking of classified data.
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Scott Horton is a law professor and writer on legal and national-security affairs for Harper's magazine and the American Lawyer, among other publications.