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A Times Editorial

Don't put off the vote on legal counsel

Lost amid the politics of torture has been the confirmation of President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the office that produced the torture memos under the Bush administration. Obama tapped Dawn Johnsen, a well-respected Indiana University law professor, in January to lead the Office of Legal Counsel, where she'd worked in the Clinton administration. But her nomination is stalled, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apparently unwilling to push the issue. That's short-sighted politics that is sure to only further extend the partisan torture debate.

The legal counsel is an obscure but influential office within the Justice Department that advises the president of the limits to his power under law. But during the Bush presidency the office was transformed from independent legal adviser to a handmaiden for the administration's outrages.

Johnsen was an early and principled critic of the disgraceful Bush-era torture memos and was particularly articulate in condemning the counsel's advice that the president could ignore the law when acting against a terrorist threat. She condemned this metamorphosis in scholarly writings and public testimony. In 2004, she joined 18 other former legal counsel lawyers in a statement opposing the office's "dramatic and dangerous" direction. It recommended the adoption of 10 good government principles to guide the office, including more transparency.

But according to Roll Call, Reid isn't bringing forth the confirmation vote because he does not think he can defeat a Republican filibuster. Reid reportedly has 58 of the 60 votes needed, including Sen. Bill Nelson, and the only Republican to publicly support Johnsen, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana.

Republicans may be worried Johnsen will make public the problems of the office during the Bush years. Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez has called her views "extreme and out of the mainstream," an interesting critique considering that Martinez wasn't concerned with the extreme legal positions taken by the office under Bush. Other Republicans may oppose her confirmation because she was once an attorney for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Reid needs to call for a vote. While he risks a filibuster, Republicans risk further cementing in the public's mind that the GOP is the party linked to torture.

It is precisely Johnsen's determination to end the secrecy of the office that makes her such a strong choice for the job. And in these extraordinary times, the president needs his advisers.

Don't put off the vote on legal counsel 05/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 15, 2009 7:02pm]
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