More than a year since she was first nominated to head the Office of Legal Counsel, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this morning approved Indiana law professor Dawn Johnsen along party lines for the second time. Two of the three Indiana judicial nominees for the federal bench also received the green light this morning. Johnsen and the judicial nominees can now be voted on by the full Senate.
The committee approved Jon DeGuilio for the Northern District of Indiana and Marion Superior Judge Tanya Walton Pratt for the Southern District of Indiana by voice vote without any discussion. But ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he wants to meet with U.S. Magistrate Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson. He received a response late Wednesday night to some questions on various issues he posed to Judge Magnus-Stinson and he wanted to follow up with her on those answers before he voted, according to Sessions' press office. Her judicial nomination for the Southern District is held over until at least the next meeting, which could take place as early as next week.
The trio of judicial nominees had appeared before the committee for questioning in early February, following their nominations a month earlier.
Johnsen, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington and acting assistant attorney general in the OLC during the Clinton Administration, was first chosen by President Barack Obama in February 2009. The committee approved her nomination along party lines March 19, 2009, but because the Senate hadn't voted for her by the end of last year, the nomination expired. The president re-nominated her in January.
With Republicans voicing strong opposition to her selection, members voted 12-7 to allow the full Senate to consider her for the job. Members of both political parties went back and forth voicing support and opposition to Johnsen's nomination, which included her positions on terrorism, executive power, and abortion issues.
Sessions strongly objected to her nomination, saying that she was someone who during the 1990s created issues that should be a concern now as the country confronts wars on terrorism. He noted how Johnsen, as part of the DOJ during the 1990s, "frustrated" President Bill Clinton's efforts to hunt down and assassinate Osama Bin Laden, and as a result the terrorists were able to later carry out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Committee Chair Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., countered Sessions' remarks, saying that Republicans were being hypocritical in that criticism. He noted how the former president had fired missiles into a camp during the 1990s where Bin Laden had been known to be residing, and Republicans criticized him for trying to distract everyone from impeachment proceedings which were going on at the time.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also remarked on Johnsen's frank and honest answers when the committee questioned her Feb. 25, 2009, about her views on torture and the role of the OLC. Feinstein added her answers were "entirely appropriate" to the position she has been nominated for.
Leahy and others on the committee also remarked that Johnsen at least deserved a vote after waiting as long as she has, which was uncharacteristic of others who'd been nominated for the position in the past.
"In the more than nine months her nomination was pending on the Senate's Executive Calendar, Republican senators refused to agree to debate and vote on the nomination," Leahy said of the full Senate.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, suggested the vote didn't happen in the full Senate last year because there wasn't enough support from the Democrats and they wanted to make it look like the Republicans were holding it up.
Johnsen has been a controversial nominee from the start due to her open opposition to actions of the OLC under the George W. Bush Administration, including "Principles to Guide the Office of Legal Counsel," written with nearly 20 other past OLC attorneys. She has also received opposition from pro-life organizations for her work with NARAL Pro-Choice America from 1988 to 1993.
A spokesman for I.U. Maurer School of Law – Bloomington said today the school would not comment on Johnsen's nomination until after she was voted on by the full Senate. Indiana Lawyer reported on the Johnsen nomination in-depth in the Jan. 20 – Feb. 2, 2010, issue, "Nomination Revitalized."
Reporter Michael W. Hoskins contributed reporting to this story.