Deputy Attorney General

After Long Delays, Senate Confirms 3 DOJ Nominees

The Senate today confirmed three of President Obama’s nominees to fill long-vacant posts in the Justice Department, including, at long last, a leader for the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel.

The Senate confirmed attorney Virginia Seitz to head the Office of Legal Counsel, which hasn’t had a permanent, Senate-confirmed head since 2004. President Obama’s first nominee to fill the position, the well-respected and highly qualified law professor Dawn Johnsen, came under fire from Republicans for her support of abortion rights and opposition to torture, and withdrew her nomination last year after over a year of obstruction and gridlock

The OLC essentially acts as the White House’s private law firm, advising the president and executive branch agencies on the constitutionality of their actions

Besides Seitz, James Cole was confirmed to serve as Deputy Attorney General, a position that has been vacant since February 2010, and Lisa Monaco was confirmed to lead the DOJ’s National Security Division, which has been vacant since March.

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Madison Police Chief: Walker’s Remarks on Protesters are “Unsettling and Troubling”

Madison, Wisconsin’s police chief isn’t so happy about Gov. Scott Walker’s joking around with a caller who he thought was billionaire Republican donor David Koch. In his conversation with a reporter pretending to be Koch, Walker said that he had “thought about” planting troublemakers in the crowds outside the state’s capital to discredit pro-union protesters. Police Chief Noble Wray told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“I would like to hear more of an explanation from Governor Walker as to what exactly was being considered, and to what degree it was discussed by his cabinet members. I find it very unsettling and troubling that anyone would consider creating safety risks for our citizens and law enforcement officers,” the chief said.

“Our department works hard dialoging with those who are exercising their First Amendment right, those from both sides of the issue, to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure they can demonstrate safely. I am concerned that anyone would try to undermine these relationships. I have a responsibility to the community, and to the men and women of this department - who are working long hours protecting and serving this community – to find out more about what was being considered by state leaders.”

The police chief’s remarks come the day after a deputy attorney general in Indiana was fired for encouraging the use of violent force on the Wisconsin protesters.

h/t Think Progress
 

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Former DOJ Official Discusses Impact of GOP Obstruction

On Tuesday, former Deputy Attorney General David Ogden spoke publicly for the first time since leaving the Justice Department.

Among other pressing issues, Ogden addressed the ongoing obstruction of key Obama nominees to the department, including Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel and Chris Schroeder to head the Office of Legal Policy.
 
In Ogden’s words, “it causes problems for the department not to have key” positions filled.
 
Johnsen, whom Ogden called a “brilliant” lawyer, has been waiting for over a year for an up-down vote in the Senate. “It would make a big difference to have her in there,” said Ogden. “It’s just not right that it’s been held up so long.”
 
Johnsen was approved by the Judiciary Committee for a second time on March 4th and could be brought to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.
 
Click here to learn more about Johnsen’s outstanding qualifications and broad base of support. And click here to call on Senators to finally confirm her and let her get to work on the many pressing issues at Justice Department.
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Judiciary Committee Hearing on OPR Report

On Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the recently-released report by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).  The Office had been tasked with assessing whether lawyers in the Bush Office of Legal Counsel had acted unethically in crafting legal memoranda justifying torture.

Although the OPR report concluded that John Yoo and Jay Bybee had demonstrated “professional misconduct,” their recommendation for sanctions was overruled by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who acknowledged that it was a close question but concluded that the two had exercised “poor judgment.

As we pointed out, regardless of the final recommendation, the detailed reports absolutely affirm that embattled nominee Dawn Johnsen, who has been waiting for more than a year to be confirmed to head OLC under Attorney General Eric Holder, was correct in her criticisms of the “torture memos” issued by the Bush OLC. 

Rather than being pilloried for her legitimate criticisms of the Bush OLC’s failure to respect the rule of law, Johnsen should be celebrated for extraordinarily valuable process she led with 19 former OLC lawyers in fashioning principles to guide OLC’s work going forward.

Those principles, by the way, have garnered support across the political spectrum, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Timothy Elliott Flanigan (nominated by Bush to be Deputy Attorney General), and former OLC head Steven Bradbury.

At the hearings, Senator Leahy noted that Attorney General Holder has been hampered in fully reforming OLC as Johnsen’s confirmation continues to be obstructed by Republicans. She should be confirmed without further delay.

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John Yoo versus Reality

Via The San Francisco Chronicle, it seems that the latest filing by John Yoo's lawyer— in a case brought by a prisoner who was illegally detained and tortured based on Yoo’s advice—has all the hallmarks of one of Yoo’s own briefs: it’s slipshod, morally questionable and utterly unsupported by the facts.

Take this assertion, for instance:

[Miguel Estrada, Yoo’s lawyer] also cited the Justice Department's report last week concluding that Yoo committed no professional misconduct in his memos.

As the Chronicle points out, Estrada failed to mention that that the Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that Yoo (along with now-Federal Judge Jay Bybee) demonstrated “professional misconduct” and ignored legal precedents.  Even the memo prepared by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who ultimately attributed Yoo’s and Bybee’s actions to “poor judgment,” is “far from a vindication for John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee's shamefully narrow interpretations of laws against torture” according to the Los Angeles Times.  Margolis, while ruling out the harshest punishment for Yoo, says that debate over whether “Yoo intentionally or recklessly provided misleading advice to his client” is a “close question.”  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

In fact, anyone who has actually read the report or Margolis’s memo knows that they paint a damning picture of Yoo’s actions.  Estrada’s claim that they exonerate Yoo is wishful thinking at best.

Next up is Estrada’s shot at guidelines drawn by a group of OLC alumni, headed by Dawn Johnsen, to help the Office move forward after the torture memos were made public.

In Friday's filing, Yoo's lawyer, Miguel Estrada, said Johnsen's guidelines reflect "only partisan disagreement with the policies of the previous administration."

How Estrada can deliver such an allegation with a straight face is difficult to fathom.  The idea that only partisans could oppose Yoo’s torture memos simply isn’t borne out by the facts.  First off, Republican Lindsey Graham didn’t seem to be a big fan of Yoo’s opinions, saying:

The guidance that was provided during this period of time, I think will go down in history as some of the most irresponsible and short-sighted legal analysis ever provided to our nation's military and intelligence communities.

Even putting aside Graham’s criticism of Yoo’s memos, Johnsen’s statement of principles was endorsed by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Timothy Flanigan, and Acting OLC head Steven Bradbury in testimony to Congress.

But perhaps most galling is Estrada’s claim that Yoo remains a "respected legal scholar."

Honorifics aside, most “respected legal scholars” aren’t being investigated for war crimes by our allies.  Most don’t find their colleagues debating about whether or not ones tenure should be revoked.  And, notwithstanding the Margolis memorandum, the Office of Professional Responsibility doesn’t usually recommend that its findings of misconduct be referred to the state bar disciplinary authorities.

Estrada’s defense of Yoo is logically indefensible and divorced from even a passing resemblance to reality.  In short, it’s a brief only John Yoo could love.

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Truth Telling in the Senate Judiciary Committee

President Obama’s choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel moved out of the Judiciary Committee today on a not-quite party line vote of 11-7. All the Democrats on the Committee supported her nomination, and all the Republicans opposed it, except for Arlen Specter, who passed.

Today’s vote is important because now the nomination of this extraordinarily qualified woman to head the Office of Legal Counsel will go forward to the floor, where—hopefully—she will get a vote by the full Senate.

But today’s session was also important because of the truth telling by a number of members, including Senators Leahy, Durbin, and Whitehouse, about the central role the Office of Legal Counsel played during the Bush Administration in undermining the rule of law and advancing some of its "most horrendous practices." As Senator Whitehouse said it was the "leading contender for the most rotten place during the Bush Administration.” 

The Senators made the case for how qualified Dawn Johnsen is to head this office—her record of previous service as a Deputy Attorney General; her intellectual honesty and exceptionally good judgment; her extremely constructive role, in response to the Bush Administration excesses, in pulling together nineteen former OLC attorneys to craft a statement of principles to guide the Office of Legal Counsel that has won bipartisan praise. And they told their colleagues on the other side of the aisle that when this nomination comes to the floor, if they want to debate the past role of the Office of Legal Counsel, if they want to debate the role that John Yoo among others played in undermining the rule of law, then bring it on. That’s the kind of debate the American people will understand!

This was a good day for the American people, and for the rule of law.  Let’s hope it continues.

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Report from the Judiciary Committee

I'm sitting in the Senate Juduciary Committee executive meeting where Senator Leahy confirmed what we had been hearing -- despite the fact that David Ogden's nomination to be Deputy Attorney General was reported out on a vote of 14-5, with three Republicans including the ranking member in support -- the Republican caucus is going to filibuster the nomination on the floor.  All this because Ogden had the temerity while in public practice to stand up for the First Amendment and a woman's right to choose.

Senator Leahy also flagged the absurdity -- which People For noted earlier this week -- that the entire Republican caucus is threatening to filibuster President Obama's judicial nominees even before a single nomination is put forward. Senator Leahy noted that Republicans and their allies may want the President to fail, but that the American people surely do not. For the good of all of us, he said, President Obama needs to succeed. And that certainly means moving the President's nominees through expeditiously.

By the way, the final votes on the nominations of Elena Kagan -- who will be the first woman confirmed as Solicitor General -- and Tom Perrelli -- nominated to be Assistant Attorney General -- were both held up by the Republicans at the last executive meeting. The vote today? 13-3 and either 17-1 or 16-2. (There was some confusion about the last vote - will report back when it's clarified.)
 

UPDATE: So, it looks like the planned filibuster of the Ogden nomination may be losing some steam. Thanks to Senator Leahy for exposing the Republican obstructionism to the light of day. Also, the Committee has clarified the vote on Tom Perrelli's nomination: it was 17-1, with Senator Coburn as the only "no" vote.
 

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The Obstruction Strategy

On Wednesday night, I was thrilled to represent People For the American Way members and activists at a small White House reception. When meeting the President and First Lady, as well as Vice President Biden and his wife Jill, it really sunk in that, finally, progressives are no longer locked out as we were during the Bush administration. People For's seat at the table is the Obama administration's recognition of you and all your efforts, your passion and your activism, and our collective strength.

We will still need to organize and fight to achieve our goals, but so much more is possible now and it's good to know that we have a receptive audience. Our vigilance is needed to help make sure the administration does the right thing, but it's also needed because with this shift that I've just described, the Far Right has amplified its efforts to divide Americans and obstruct a progressive agenda.

Yesterday, People For the American Way released a Right Wing Watch In Focus report exposing the Radical Right's real intentions in their efforts to obstruct confirmation of President Obama's Department of Justice nominees:

"The rhetoric used in the attacks, documented extensively on RightWingWatch.org, suggests that the campaign may be less about actually stopping any of these nominees and more about getting right-wing activists, pundits, and lawmakers warmed up for similar attacks on eventual Obama nominees to the federal judiciary, and in particular to the U.S. Supreme Court."

This is more than just "playing politics." The DOJ is a vital branch of the government and these positions are critical to fill. Americans need to be able to put the past eight years of politicization and cronyism at the Department behind us and once again rely on the DOJ as a protector of our rights and values.

As I write this, the Justice Department is at the center of some serious legal matters pertaining to fundamental checks and balances. The Bush administration pushed most people's understanding of executive power to the limit and went significantly beyond. Some members of Congress did not take it lying down, asserting their constitutional authority and acting on their duty to check the president's power and cut through the extreme secrecy. But the process will be a long and intense one and we need a full team in place at Justice to help do the job.

The Senate must not delay in confirming all of the president's nominees, and first up, due to be voted on in committee next week, is Deputy Attorney General nominee David Ogden.

Ogden is incredibly well qualified, but the Right has attacked him because of his representation of American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, and, yes, Playboy and Penthouse in First Amendment cases. They also went after him for arguing vigorously on behalf of a woman's right to choose and advocating that the U.S. follow the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child -- something that only the most fringe elements on the Right oppose.

But most of all, the Far Right is flexing its muscle in advance of judicial confirmation battles to come.

The Family Research Council has generated thousands of calls to the Senate in opposition to Ogden as a show of strength. It is absolutely necessary that senators not only hear from their side. Every senator needs to see that progressive activists are willing to stand up for constitutional values and weigh in on these fights. And they need to see it well in advance of Obama's first judicial nominations.

Please take a moment now to send an e-mail to your senators urging the swift confirmation of David Ogden as Deputy Attorney General.

Whether you live in a red state or a blue state, your senators need to hear from you. Even the most right-wing senators need to know that people in their states are spreading a counter message and are ready to hold them accountable.

Help Ogden achieve speedy confirmation for the sake of the DOJ AND to show senators that it's not only the Right that's strong.

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Rumors of their death...

Even before November's election, gallons of ink were being spilled to report the demise of the Religious Right. But, as Mark Twain might have said, rumors of the Right's death have been greatly exaggerated.

A small incident that was mostly ignored by the media gives a glimpse of the Radical Right's continued pull on Capitol Hill. Last week, People For's Right Wing Watch blog documented the evolution of a right-wing lie, starting with complaints by Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice that a provision in the stimulus bill discriminated against people of faith (and was, specifically, anti-Christian). In fact the provision in the bill was standard language that barred the use of federal funds to construct buildings designed for religious worship or sectarian instruction and had no bearing at all on campus prayer.  Nevertheless, ACLJ's complaints bubbled up through the right-wing echo chamber and eventually became an amendment, offered by Senator DeMint of South Carolina, to strip the provision. The amendment was ultimately defeated, although by a less-than-comfortable margin. In the end, 43 senators, including some Democrats, voted with DeMint ... on an amendment that was based on nothing but the paranoid demagoguery of a fringe right-wing organization.

The right-wing message machine is firing on all cylinders too: aggressively targeting the Obama administration. It has already weighed in heavily on the economic stimulus plan, ensuring that there was no Republican support for the Obama plan during the House vote (and little more in the Senate), and Religious Right leaders are moving quickly to increase their influence within the Republican Party and at the state and local level.

Perhaps most dauntingly, the Right is laying the groundwork for future battles over judicial nominations. Some Right Wing leaders, including Family Research Counsel President Tony Perkins, have been very explicit about linking their current attacks on DOJ nominees to future obstruction of Obama judges. And if the current attacks are any indication, they'll throw everything they've got at the President's nominees to the bench. Deputy Attorney General-nominee David Ogden, for instance, represented groups defending the First Amendment (including the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Association), and is now being smeared as a "porn lawyer" for his efforts. Dawn Johnsen, President Obama's choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel, is being aggressively targeted because of her outspoken opposition to the Bush administration's support of torture, rendition, and warrentless spying -- to say nothing of her time on staff at NARAL Pro-Choice America.

People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation are out there every day -- pushing back on the Right's unyielding efforts. We're digging in our heels for 2009, ready to:

  • research, educate about and counter extreme claims of the Radical Right;
  • uphold and advocate for a progressive vision of the Constitution;
  • support the confirmation of progressive jurists and promote progressive legal theories while taking part in strategic litigation;
  • fight for equality for all, especially through the Foundation's work to combat homophobia in the Black Church; and
  • invest in progressive leadership.

You can help with these efforts by helping to expose the Radical Right in your community, and by staying abreast of right-wing trends by reading the Right Wing Watch blog (and signing up for regular Best of the Blog e-mail updates).

By standing with People For the American Way, you are standing against the undeserved influence of right-wing extremists in our politics and our culture. And I thank you for it.

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