Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told reporters Thursday that he still hopes to confirm someone to lead the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. His comments came after Dawn Johnsen withdrew her nomination to the post last week after it had been stalled in the Senate for more than a year.
Leahy said he was surprised by Johnsen’s withdrawal, which came after more than a year of criticism from Republicans because of her pro-abortion rights stance and her opposition to Bush administration national security policies.
He said the Senate should have held a floor vote on her nomination. And he said the Senate should confirm President Barack Obama’s next nominee for the elite office that assesses the constitutionality and legality of government actions.
“We darn well better [confirm someone] because it is one of the most important positions in government,” Leahy said.
The Office of Legal Counsel has not had a Senate-confirmed head since Jack Goldsmith left it in 2004. He was replaced with an acting head until President George W. Bush nominated Steven G. Bradbury to the post in June 2005. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved his nomination, but the full Senate never brought up his nomination for a floor vote. Bradbury continued to serve as acting head until the end of the Bush administration. David J. Barron is currently the acting head of the office.
Johnsen was initially nominated to head the office on Feb. 11, 2009. The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed her on an 11-7 vote on March, 19, 2009, with then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania voting “pass.” Her nomination languished in the Senate for more than nine months before it was returned to the White House in December. Obama re-nominated her in January of 2010 and the Judiciary panel once again sent the nomination to the Senate floor by a 12-7 party-line tally on March 4. There were no overt moves to bring the nomination to a vote.
“People have to put their lives on hold during this nomination process,” Leahy said. “And when the nomination process takes forever, at some point they will say it’s not worth it.”
The OLC came under fire during the Bush administration for authorizing the use of harsh interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects.
A DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility report released in February cleared former OLC officials John Yoo and Jay Bybee of any misconduct in authoring the memos on the techniques. DOJ veteran David Margolis said in the report that they only showed “poor judgment.”
“I would like to bring somebody in there who can restore the credibility of [OLC],” Leahy said.