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Guest opinion: Legal Counsel nominee deserves better



In a powerful endorsement of the rule of law, President Barack Obama has nominated Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel.

Our founding fathers laid down a basic principle – that we are a nation of laws and that no one, including the president, is above the law.

OLC is a little-known office in the Department of Justice, but it plays a crucial role by advising the president of what the law requires and, just as significantly, what it prohibits.

During the Bush administration, OLC focused more on serving the president than on upholding our Constitution and the law. It issued contorted opinions designed not to tell the president what was legal, but rather to make excuses for what the administration had already decided to do.

OLC provided the legal justification for the illegal wiretapping of American citizens without a warrant, and it was Legal Counsel that produced the “torture memos” that grossly violated American law, the Geneva conventions and our deepest American values.

As recently as last week, memos still becoming public attempted to justify brutal treatment of detainees, including slamming subjects against a wall; striking them repeatedly in the face and abdomen; confining them to small boxes; and threatening them with stinging insects.

So it comes as no surprise that President Obama would look for a person of experience and integrity to repair the reputation of OLC, and in Dawn Johnsen, he has found an exceptional candidate

Johnsen is an eminently qualified nominee. She was deputy assistant attorney general for OLC 1993-98, including more than a year as acting head of the office. Johnsen then joined the faculty of the University of Indiana School of Law, where she specialized in constitutional law issues.

Over the course of her career, she’s earned the respect of her colleagues from across the ideological spectrum, and her nomination is supported by officials from the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush.

Representatives of both parties attest to her honesty, integrity and intellect.

She cares deeply about the integrity of the Office of Legal Counsel; in 2004, after the torture memos came to light, she organized an impressive panel of former OLC lawyers setting forth a statement of principles to guide the office going forward. That document has been praised by Republican and Democratic officials.

Now, however, Republican senators are trying to block her confirmation.

They’ve claimed that because she has said torture is illegal, she’s undermining our ability to fight terrorism (which is untrue) and that since she’s defended a woman’s right to choose, she’s unfit for office (which is untrue and unreasonable.)

Even worse, some are attempting to prevent her from even getting an up-or-down vote.

When it comes to a nominee as obviously qualified as Dawn Johnsen, that just doesn’t make sense.

The Senate has long respected the president’s right to choose his own executive branch appointments.

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona might have said it best in 2003 when he wrote, “It’s time to take the politics out of the confirmation process, give nominees the up-or-down vote they deserve, and move the orderly process of justice forward.”

Five years later, I hope Sens. Kyl and John McCain still believe that to be true.

Dawn Johnsen has demonstrated again and again that she has what it takes to do the job she’s been chosen for.

Now it’s up to our senators to prove the same.

Phil Lopes is a state representative of District 27 in west-central Tucson, including the University of Arizona. E-mail: plopes@azleg.gov

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