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Judges Aren’t the Only Confirmations Being Held Up

The Washington Post’s story today about liberals who are frustrated that the Obama administration isn’t pressing harder to win confirmation for liberal-leaning judges to the federal courts should also serve as a reminder that there are a whole lot of key Justice Department posts still not confirmed yet, either. Whether that’s because the White House isn’t pushing for them, because there aren’t enough votes to support cloture or because Republicans refuse to agree to time limits on the debate before a vote isn’t clear.

Take the nomination of Dawn Johnsen, Obama’s pick to the head the Office of Legal Counsel, which provides critical legal advice to the president. The OLC, of course, is the same office that got into all sorts of trouble under the Bush administration, and several of its former lawyers are the subject of a much-awaited report from the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which reportedly has concluded that the lawyers violated legal ethics in recommending President George W. Bush permit the abuse of detainees and other suspensions of constitutional rights in the so-called “war on terror.” That report, although reportedly drafted last year, is apparently still being reviewed by the very lawyers it apparently censures, and is likely being edited and potentially watered-down as a result.

But even as President Obama says he wants to look forward, not back, he’s not exactly pushing very hard to get a new director for that Office of Legal Counsel confirmed so she can lead his legal department on its forward march. The nomination of Johnsen, a highly-respected law professor who was second-in-command at OLC under President Clinton, was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with full Democratic support in March. She has yet to get a full Senate vote — though back in May, Attorney General Eric Holder called her confirmation “probably my top priority.”

Republicans have made clear that they’ll fight the Johnsen nomination and slow the voting process down, even though it seems clear Democrats have enough votes to confirm her. GOP lawmakers have painted Johnsen as a radical for publicly challenging some of the advice given by the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush years. And during her confirmation hearings, some Republicans seized on the fact that Johnsen was a lawyer for the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) early in her career, and 20 years ago was one of ten co-authors on a brief in which there was a footnote that some Republicans found objectionable.

With the health care debate ongoing and the president staking much of the success of his first term on its outcome, the Obama administration may not have much interest in pushing the Johnsen nomination just now, since Republicans will likely insist on cloture — and the 30 hours of debate that comes with it — which would detract from the president’s current mission.

As a result, according to the White House and Senate staffers, a vote on the Johnsen nomination isn’t even on the calendar yet.

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