Office of Legal Counsel

The Audacity of Blackmail

According to the Daily Beast, the GOP is threatening to filibuster President Obama’s legal nominees if he moves to release the infamous “torture memos” that came out of the John Yoo-era Office of Legal Counsel:

A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to “go nuclear” over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public. The source says these threats are the principal reason for the Obama administration’s abrupt pullback last week from a commitment to release some of the documents. A Republican Senate source confirms the strategy. It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration’s darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward.

It was bad enough that George W. Bush spent the last eight years politicizing the Department of Justice and degrading the rule of law. Now, instead of working with the new administration to clean up the DOJ, Republican Senators are apparently doubling down and desperately attempting to cover up the Bush Administration’s misdeeds and their own complicity.

As several of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said during the Committee’s vote on Dawn Johnsen’s nomination: bring it on. If the GOP wants a public debate about what’s been going in on the Justice Department, that’s the kind of debate the American people will understand.

In the mean time, now would be a good time to remind every member of the U.S. Senate, Democrat and Republican alike, that it’s time to confirm Dawn Johnsen and clean up the DOJ.

PFAW

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.

PFAW

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.

PFAW

Restoring Justice, Step by Step

On Monday, Eric Holder was confirmed as Attorney General. Big news ... and good news for Americans who depend on the Justice Department to defend their rights. A bit more under the radar, Monday also saw another important piece of news at the DOJ. Leslie Hagen, a Justice Department attorney who was fired by Monica Goodling because of rumors that she was a lesbian, was rehired to her previous job at the Department.

This is just one step in cleaning up the appalling mess at the DOJ left by egregious politicization during the Bush administration. Monica Goodling, senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was by all objective standards unqualified for such a high post. Her only "qualifications" -- the only ones that mattered in the Gonzales DOJ -- were that she was a partisan ideologue who graduated from Pat Robertson's Regent University Law School and was committed to reshaping the Justice Department to operate on a right-wing agenda.

Even though the politicization of the DOJ under President Bush was shameful (and possibly criminal), some senators apparently think it should continue and are taking their marching orders from the Radical Right. The next targets of their witch hunt? Three more of the president's eminently qualified DOJ nominees: David Ogden, Thomas Perrelli and Dawn Johnsen.

Dawn Johnson, for example, has been tapped to head the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) -- the office that, under the Bush administration, produced the memos that served as its guidelines for detainee treatment and executive overreaching. Johnsen has been a harsh critic of the Bush administration's legal justifications for its policies. And, in her extremely impressive legal career, she spent several years at NARAL Pro-Choice America. Already some senators like Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- who earlier this week assailed the Johnsen nomination on the Senate floor -- are suggesting that, in their view, pro-choice bona fides should be an instant disqualifier.

Quickly confirming the rest of President Obama's Justice Department team will be one more important step, but there's still much more to be done to repair what was so damaged during the Bush years.

Let's look back at just a few of the disasters born out of DOJ's right-wing politicization:

  • political firings of U.S. attorneys;
  • political firings of staff attorneys, especially in the Civil Rights Division;
  • refusal to properly enforce civil rights laws, particularly those protecting voting rights;
  • Department approval and justification of unconstitutional policies from warrantless domestic spying to the denial of habeas corpus and torture.

People For the American Way will be pushing for investigations into these wrongdoings. I know how important this issue is to our activists -- you've pitched in time and again over the last eight years as we've pushed for accountability and the rule of law at the DOJ, and hundreds of you wrote me impassioned emails last week about just how critical it is to keep pushing.

Karl Rove and others who are subpoenaed to testify or provide documents must comply and cooperate not just with Justice Department probes into these matters, but also with any and all congressional investigations. Congressional action is what's needed to get to the bottom of what happened, hold those responsible accountable and prevent similar abuses of power from happening in the future.

Making sure investigations happen and proceed effectively and making sure President Obama's other Justice Department nominees are confirmed smoothly are just two things we'll be working hard for in the coming weeks, and there will be much more.

I'd also like to take a moment to ackowledge Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who is in the hospital recovering from surgery. She's a true defender of our constitutional values and I know you'll join me and the rest of the staff of People For in wishing her a speedy recovery.

PFAW

Department of Justice Will Actually Uphold the Law!

After 8 years of the Bush Administration, it’s amazing how low our collective standards have fallen. For instance, the idea that Barack Obama has appointed people to the Department of Justice who will uphold the rule of law -- as opposed to wantonly ignoring it for political purposes -- struck me almost too good to be true.

But by any standards the team he’s put together looks top notch. Elena Kagan is clearly the big news, but there’s a lot of depth in the slate of nominees. TAPPED points out:

One particular point of interest: Johns[e]n, the new head of the Office of Legal Counsel, has recently written articles entitled Faithfully Executing the Laws: Internal Legal Constraints on Executive Power and What's a President to Do? Interpreting the Constitution in the Wake of the Bush Administration's Abuses. Given that OLC was a hotbed of torture-justifying and illegal-surveillance-allowing during the last administration, it's nice to see that the new boss has a different set of ideas.

Be still my beating heart!

PFAW

Putting the Justice back in the DOJ

In Washington, we're hearing rumblings that the Right may be looking to start a fight over Attorney General nominee Eric Holder, whose confirmation hearing will be in early January. It's tough to imagine the kind of audacity it would take to challenge Holder's nomination after Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzales.

After eight years of being dominated by politicization, cronyism and extremism, the Department of Justice is in desperate need of a good housecleaning. The Department, like the Attorney General, is supposed to defend the rule of law and Americans' constitutional rights. But under the Bush administration, the DOJ has been used as a weapon against constitutional values, used to fight the administration's ideological and political battles.

In the wake of 9/11, John Ashcroft's Justice Department led the Bush administration's relentless assault on civil liberties. The DOJ was on the forefront of the draconian expansion of surveillance and police powers, and contributed heavily to post-9/11 era of extreme government secrecy. Career lawyers at the DOJ were subtly -- and not so subtly -- pushed out in favor of attorneys more politically and ideologically aligned with the administration. The Civil Rights Division was completely politicized and instead of using its resources to protect voters' rights (by enforcing the Voting Rights Act among other things), the DOJ waged an attack on voting rights by supporting disenfranchising policies like Georgia's restrictive voter ID law. The Department also exploited the 'widespread voter fraud' myth for politically motivated witch hunts -- part of a larger trend of selectively targeting political and ideological opponents for investigation and prosecution.

And how can we forget the Gonzales era at the DOJ! The Attorney General is supposed to be the people's lawyer, but Gonzales was more the president's bag man. The problems that existed under Ashcroft continued or got worse. As more and more news came out about the NSA's illegal warrantless spying on Americans, the torture of U.S. detainees, legally questionable military tribunals and other subversions of the rule of law, we found out that the DOJ had expressly signed off on these administration policies and in some cases even supplied the legal and intellectual underpinning out of the Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). And when a scandal broke over the firing of U.S. attorneys, it became clear exactly how politically motivated hiring and firing practices had been at the DOJ, which evidently was staffed with a disproportionate number of graduates of Pat Robertson's law school (including one of the people tasked with the hiring/firing)!

Attorney General Mukasey has been arguably better than his two predecessors, but following the records of Ashcroft and Gonzales, that's not very hard. Eric Holder is a stellar choice: smart, capable and able to lead the DOJ in a new direction. But he will have his work cut out for him and he'll need help from people like you and me. First, we need to make sure he's confirmed, and that could mean a campaign to defeat whatever attacks right-wing senators throw at him. Then, because of the politically skewed hiring practices, he's going to need the support of the people to make dramatic changes at one of the government's most important agencies.

For eight years, the Department of Justice -- a government agency with a rich history of enforcing civil rights and the rule of law -- has served the worst ideological and partisan impulses of the Bush administration. The era of overzealous ideologues and partisans like Ashcroft and Gonzales is coming to an end.

Thank goodness.

But now it's time to dig in our heels and do our part to put the justice back in the Department of Justice. I hope you don't mind if I call on you for help in the coming months.

PFAW