A Fight That Matters

If Republicans are able to prevent Dawn Johnsen from taking office, they'll have demonstrated an ability to block any nomination for the most craven, partisan reasons.
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When George W. Bush left office, it felt like everyone breathed a sigh of relief. After eight hard years, it seemed that sanity had returned to our country and, once again, the rule of law would reign supreme.

For those of us who believed that the dark days of President Bush's lawbreaking were behind us, it has been a rude awakening to see how stridently the GOP has attacked Dawn Johnsen, President Obama's nominee to clean up the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice.

Although it may sound obscure, the Office of Legal Counsel plays a critical role in ensuring that the government plays by the rules. Under President Bush it was "ground zero" in providing the legal justification to wiretap phone calls of American citizens and to torture detainees using inhuman interrogation techniques such as water boarding. Bush Office of Legal Counsel opinions defied the Constitution, the Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions, and the Supreme Court.

Indeed, it's fair to say that for all the misdeeds and mismanagement that went on under the Bush White House, the rot at the Office of Legal Counsel may well have been the worst. It epitomized our government's shameful refusal to respect the core principles of our Constitution.

To restore integrity and respect for the rule of law to the Department, President Obama has nominated an inordinately qualified individual - Dawn Johnsen - who is now being attacked by Republicans and her right-wing allies for having the nerve to criticize Bush administration excesses. They're faulting her for criticizing OLC opinions that the Bush administration itself repudiated. In other words, she's being pilloried for having the very integrity and respect for the rule of law that the Bush OLC so clearly lacked.

Senator Cornyn has the temerity to say that Johnsen lacks the "requisite seriousness" to head the OLC. Hogwash. Here are the facts. Johnsen, who is currently a professor at University of Indiana's School of Law, is an expert in constitutional law. I know from experts I've talked to that she has the intellect, the judgment, and the integrity to run the OLC the way it ought to be run--she even ran the office for over a year under Bill Clinton, earning respect from both sides of the aisle. When the abuses of the Bush administration OLC became known, she worked with 18 other former OLC lawyers of both parties to draft a set of principles --grounded in transparency and respect for the role of Congress and the courts -- that should guide the office in its work.

But because Johnsen had the nerve to openly criticize the Bush administration's claims to be above the law, the GOP is worried: worried I guess that she might actually expose the excesses that permeated the Bush Justice Department.

And because she had the courage to defend a woman's right to choose as the Legal Director of NARAL, the religious right is out for blood. They believe that anyone with pro-choice credentials should be excluded from public office, and they're demanding that Republican senators vote accordingly.

Even with 58 Democratic senators, the GOP can still stage a filibuster, and that's exactly what they're threatening. We can't afford for this issue to remain under the radar. Senators need to hear loud and clear that we want to move past the dangerous politics of the Bush era and towards an era of honesty and respect for the law.

Make no mistake -- the success or failure of Dawn Johnsen's confirmation will be a crucial turning point in President Obama's first term. If the Republicans and their Right Wing allies are able to prevent her from taking office, they'll have demonstrated an ability to block any nomination for the most craven, partisan reasons.

When Dawn Johnsen takes that oath of office, we'll truly start to be a nation of laws again.

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