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Law professor ends 15-month nomination battle

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On a historic day when a longtime U.S. Supreme Court justice announced his retirement and an Indianapolis judge marked his investiture to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, an Indiana law professor withdrew her name from consideration for a post with the Department of Justice.

On Friday, Dawn Johnsen, constitutional law professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law - Bloomington, withdrew her long-stalled nomination to lead the Office of Legal Counsel. She cited political delays, saying the move was made in order to protect the fundamental duty the legal office fulfills.

"Restoring OLC to its best nonpartisan traditions was my primary objective for my anticipated service in this administration," she said in a written statement. "Unfortunately, my nomination has met with lengthy delays and political opposition that threaten that objective and prevent OLC from functioning at full strength. I hope that the withdrawal of my nomination will allow this important office to be filled promptly."

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt issued a statement that praised Johnsen's credentials and past service but said it was "clear that Senate Republicans will not allow her to be confirmed." The president is now working to identify a replacement who can provide impartial legal advice and constitutional analysis to the executive branch, with hopes the U.S. Senate will move beyond politics to swiftly confirm that nominee.

Johnsen plans to continue teaching courses on constitutional law, presidential power, and reproductive rights, as she's done on a full-time basis during the 15-month long nomination process.

Dean Lauren Robel said the withdrawal is disappointing not only for Johnsen but also for the entire law school.

"Professor Johnsen's credentials and her demonstrated commitment to the rule of law make her eminently qualified to the lead the OLC, and it is unfortunate for the country that she will not have the opportunity to do so," Robel wrote in a statement. "I applaud Dawn for the integrity she has shown by putting the importance of an Office of Legal Counsel that can operate at full strength, free from a lengthy and difficult confirmation process, ahead of her own interests."

Marge Baker, who attended the March 4 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, is executive vice president of People for the American Way, a progressive organization based in Washington, D.C. Baker told Indiana Lawyer today that she found the news to be disappointing, as well as why Johnsen likely withdrew her name.

"I think it's a profound loss to the nation. I think she'd serve the country extremely well as she did before. ... She had a strong support from Democrats when she was taken up again in committee. I thought they made an extremely powerful case for her," Baker said.

"What happened here was the other side was permitted to characterize her as controversial for views that are very mainstream. She was pilloried for her strong and cogent and mainstream views that torture was illegal, and was castigated for the fact she was pro-choice, which is a very mainstream position. ... Hopefully next time around the administration will not permit their nominee to get labeled by the other side as controversial when they're not."

Johnsen's name came up only briefly during the investiture ceremony of her brother-in-law, 7th Circuit Judge David Hamilton. The judge's wife alluded to Johnsen in her remarks, and Judge Hamilton said during his remarks that Johnsen deserved the nomination to the OLC. Johnsen did not attend the ceremony.

This story will be updated in the April 14-27, 2010, issue of Indiana Lawyer.

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