Specter says he'll back Obama choice for Justice Dept. post
By Carrie Johnson
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) announced Tuesday that he would support Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen as the new leader of a critical Justice Department post. The move could potentially break a legislative logjam lasting nearly a year over Johnsen's nomination.
President Obama tapped Johnsen last March to head the Office of Legal Counsel, made famous during George W. Bush's administration as the place where controversial memos on executive power, waterboarding of terrorist suspects and warrantless eavesdropping won legal support.
But the Obama administration and the Senate leadership struggled to find 60 senators willing to support Johnsen. Moderate lawmakers have expressed concern over her legal work for an abortion rights group and her positions on certain national security issues.
Specter's action came amid prodding from Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.), who is challenging the veteran lawmaker in the state's Democratic primary.
Sestak called out his rival in an e-mail message to supporters, saying, "The Office of Legal Counsel is one of the most important offices in the Department of Justice and determines the legality of actions by the President and the Executive Branch. Because of your obstruction, President Obama is trying keep the country safe from terrorism, end two wars, and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay without a critical legal adviser."
Johnsen's nomination had been stalled for so long that she resumed teaching courses at Indiana, commuting between her husband and children in the Washington area and Bloomington, the site of the law school.
Specter said in a statement that he would vote for Johnsen and that he had met with the law professor a second time to assuage his concerns. Her nomination expired late last year, but the White House has announced its intention to resubmit her nomination when the new Senate session begins. She would also need to pass a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee; last year that committee approved her nomination in a divided vote.
The Office of Legal Counsel, where Johnsen served as a deputy and acting chief during the Clinton years, provides legal advice for the executive branch on pending legislation, national security, food safety and numerous other issues. For the past year, the office has been led on an interim basis by Harvard law school professor David Barron.
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