The Wall Street Journal comments with astonishment on Obama’s choice of Dawn Johnsen, leading opponent of the Bush Administration’s defense of executive branch authority, as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which interprets the law for his entire administration.
One of the OLC’s main duties is to defend the Presidency against the inevitable encroachment of the judiciary and Congress on Constitutional authority, executive privilege, war powers, and so forth. Ms. Johnsen knows this, or should, having served as acting OLC head in the Clinton Administration between 1997 and 1998. The office has since become all the more central in a war on terror that has been “strangled by law,” to quote Jack Goldsmith, a former Bush OLC chief.
Yet Ms. Johnsen seems to think her job isn’t to defend the Presidency but to tie it down with even more legal ropes. She has written that “an essential source of constraint is often underappreciated and underestimated: legal advisors within the executive branch.” And in touting her qualifications, the Obama transition cited her recent law review articles “What’s a President to Do?: Interpreting the Constitution in the Wake of the Bush Administration’s Abuses”; and “Faithfully Executing the Laws: Internal Legal Constraints on Executive Power.”
In other words, Mr. Obama has nominated as his main executive branch lawyer someone who believes in diminishing the powers of the executive branch. This is akin to naming a conscientious objector as the head of the armed forces, or hiring your wife’s divorce lawyer to handle your side of the settlement too.