Office of Legal Counsel: Who is Dawn Johnsen?

Sunday, January 18, 2009
(photo: Courtesy of Indiana University)

Dawn E. Johnsen is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s use of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)—a key part of the Department of Justice that she once led on an interim basis during the Clinton presidency and has been asked to lead again. During her previous tenure at OLC, she advocated for increased executive power. In 2006, she joined with several other Clinton Justice Department officials in support of retaining the right of the president to use “signing statements” that allow him to bypass laws, claiming that the practice should be retained even if President Bush abused it. Johnsen does not support the prosecution of CIA operatives and contract employees who committed torture. She does support investigating how it came to pass that the “OLC misinterpreted the law in a way that led to torture.”

Born August 14, 1961, and raised on Long Island, Johnsen graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale College in 1983, with a BA in economics and political science. She was accepted into Yale Law School, where she served as the article and book review editor of the Yale Law Journal. She received her JD in 1986, and proceeded to clerk for Judge Richard D. Cudahy on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. It was here that Johnsen met her future husband, fellow clerk John Hamilton.
In 1987, she joined the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project in New York as a staff counsel. She stayed for one year before being hired as the legal director for the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League (currently NARAL Pro-Choice America).
Johnsen worked for five years at NARAL, where she directed all legal and policy work of the league, its political action committee and foundation, as well as 40 state affiliates. She also served as a public spokesperson.
Johnsen campaigned for Bill Clinton in 1992 and served on his transition team. After he took office, Clinton offered her the post of Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in Washington, DC. She later oversaw the OLC as Acting Assistant Attorney General from 1997-1998. During her five years in the Justice Department, she provided constitutional and other legal advice to the US Attorney General, the President’s legal counsel, and the general counsels of the various executive branch agencies.
Johnsen left Washington in 1998 to accept a faculty post at Indiana University School of Law, teaching courses on constitutional law; the First Amendment; separation of powers; and sexuality, reproduction and the Constitution.
Johnsen has publicly assailed “Bush’s corruption of our American ideals.” Upon the release last spring of a secret OLC memo that permitted the use of torture on terrorism suspects, she exclaimed, “Where is the outrage, the public outcry?! The shockingly flawed content of this memo, the deficient processes that led to its issuance, the horrific acts it encouraged, the fact that it was kept secret for years and that the Bush administration continues to withhold other memos like it—all demand our outrage.”
Johnsen’s husband, John M. Hamilton, is a community development banker. He was chairman of Community First Inc. and has been a director, since 1998, of City First Bank of D.C. He is president of City First Enterprises. Hamilton was elected in November 2008 to the board of the Monroe County Community School Corporation in Bloomington, Indiana. He previously served as the head the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (1997-1999) and the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (2001-2003). The couple has two sons.
Dawn E. Johnsen’s Scholarly Papers (Social Sciences Research Network)
On Investigation of Post-9/11 Waterboarding (by Dawn Johnsen, IntLawGrrls)
“Secret Law and the Threat to Democratic and Accountable Government” (by Dawn Johnsen, testimony before Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution) (PDF)
Outrage at the Latest OLC Torture Memo (by Dawn Johnsen, Slate blog)
All the President’s Lawyers: How to Avoid Another “Torture Opinion” Debacle (by Dawn E. Johnsen, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy) (PDF)
Principles to Guide the Office of Legal Counsel (by Walter Dellinger, Dawn Johnsen, Randolph Moss, Christopher Shroeder, et al)


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