In what is shaping up to be a heated confirmation battle for a key Justice Department post, the Senate Judiciary Committee formally recommended former Clinton administration official Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel, splitting 11-7 along party lines.
Johnsen, a noted American Constitution Society blogger and anti-torture activist who spent five years in Clinton’s OLC, has drawn fire from conservatives for her past work with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (now NARAL Pro-Choice America). Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), joining a chorus of conservative voices that include Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa); and National Review’s Andy McCarthy, has voiced opposition to the nomination.
“As I see it, Dawn Johnsen has not demonstrated the seriousness and necessary resolve to address the national security challenges we face,” said Cornyn, telling the Legal Times that he would fight to prevent Johnsen’s confirmation in front of the full Senate. But in a sign the former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman may be more interested in scoring political points out of his opposition to the unabashedly liberal nominee than evaluating her fitness for office, he made only a brief appearance at her February 25th confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and posed no questions.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), the ranking Republican on Judiciary, abstained from voting, citing his desire to see Johnsen get a vote in front of the Senate. The 79-year-old Specter faces a potentially tough Republican primary fight in his re-election campaign next year. Many centrist Republicans are believed to have changed party registration to vote Democratic in last year’s presidential election, skewing the Pennsylvania GOP primary more conservative.
Specter now appears to be pivoting on some of his moderate positions. Although he supports abortion rights, Specter at Johnsen’s confirmation hearing questioned her about a footnote in a 1989 amicus brief she co-authored that drew parallels between unwanted pregnancies and slavery. Johnsen said she does not believe that abortion restrictions violate the Thirteenth amendment against involuntary servitude. Democrats need only the support of a handful of moderates like Specter for the nomination to succeed.
Johnsen’s fight to lead the Office of Legal Counsel is not without precedent – Steven Bradbury, whom former President Bush nominated in 2005 for the position, was never confirmed by the Democratic 110th Congress. The author of controversial secret legal memos that authorized harsh interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects, Bradbury served as acting head throughout his 4-year tenure. This politicization is not surprising, as some have called the office “more important to the war on terrorism than the attorney general.” The OLC gives the executive branch guidance for acting within legal and constitutional bounds.
No date has been set for Johnsen’s confirmation vote in front of the Senate.