Office of Legal Counsel

>> Sunday, November 9, 2008

The office of Legal Counsel (OLC) is one of the many appointments that President Obama will have to make for his administration. This appointment may not be as high profile as a treasury secretary of secretary of defense but the appointed person plays a critical role in the executive branch, giving opinions of the legality of something. The numerous and infamous memo's suborning torture and infinite detention of "enemy combatants" were products of OLC. The person Obama appoints will have the chore of going through these legal memo's and bringing them into compliance with real law instead of the imaginary law that President Bush subscribed to.

The Anonymous Liberal explains what can happen when the person in charge of keeping it legal is unprepared and unqualified.

After 9/11, John Yoo used his perch at the OLC to authorize a number of illegal activities--from torture to warrantless surveillance--that are not only deeply troubling but have badly damaged America's image in the world. Yoo was allowed to do most of this because the head of the OLC at the time, Jay Bybee, was not familiar with the relevant executive power issues and therefore allowed Yoo to run amok.

When Jack Goldsmith took over the OLC in 2003, he discovered--to his horror--that a multitude of Bush administration programs rested on entirely indefensible legal opinions drafted by the OLC during his predecessor's tenure. He was forced to walk most of them back, a move that caused a major internal dispute within the Bush administration and nearly resulted in the total implosion of the administration just prior to the 2004 election.

Whoever President Obama selects to head the OLC will have a critically important job. Virtually every opinion the OLC has issued during the post 9/11 era--even those written after Yoo's departure--will need to be reviewed and, in all likelihood, rewritten. Moreover, many of the terrorism-related laws that have been passed in the last few years--relating to surveillance, detention, torture, etc.--are filled with ambiguities and language that will require careful interpretation. Many new legal opinions, opinions that will be of enormous consequence, will need to be drafted.

There is a lot at stake. Just as Obama has put together a team to review 200 Bush administration actions and executive orders that could be swiftly undone to reverse the president on climate change, stem cell research, reproductive rights and other issues there is going to be a lot of people working on fixing the legal system.

To fix these issue will take some time. Rewriting and Re-researching all the legal memo's that have come out of the OLC under Bush will take an army of lawyers and researchers. The person selected to oversee the office will need to be ready to go from day 1. AL, Glenn Greenwald and Orin Kerr all have one person in mind, Georgetown Law Professor Marty Lederman.

Professor Lederman is exactly the sort of person I would want in charge of this important task. First, he's deeply familiar with all of the relevant executive power issues, having written about them extensively over the last few years. He is also intimately familiar with the workings of the OLC, having worked there from 1994-2002. And most importantly, I think Lederman has a good sense of what the OLC's role should be (i.e., not merely rubber-stamping whatever the president wants to do).

Seems to make sense. Experienced, apparently competent and qualified. Those should be positives.

I must believe that Obama will not be trying to commit activities he knows to illegal. There is a world of difference between getting an opinion on what is an is not legal and deciding to do something and justifying it after the fact. With Bush gone we might return to the former.

something to keep in mind


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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