Dawn Johnsen

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Dawn Elizabeth Johnsen
Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel
In office
PresidentBill Clinton
Preceded byBeth Nolan (acting)
Succeeded byRandolph D. Moss
Personal details
Born (1961-08-14) August 14, 1961 (age 58)
Manhasset, New York
NationalityUnited States
Alma materYale College (B.A.), Yale Law School (J.D.)
OccupationLawyer, Professor Indiana University Maurer School of Law

Dawn Elizabeth Johnsen (born August 14, 1961) is an American lawyer and the Walter W. Foskett Professor of Constitutional law, who is currently on the faculty at Maurer School of Law at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She worked at the Office of Legal Counsel in the United States Department of Justice from 1993 to 1998 and served as acting Assistant Attorney General from 1997 to 1998; she was twice nominated to the post in the Obama Administration.[1][2][3] Johnsen's first nomination was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2009 in a party line vote, but was not acted on by the full Senate before it recessed at the end of 2009.[4] Obama then renominated her to the post on January 20, 2010 but on April 9, 2010, Johnsen withdrew her name from consideration.[4][5]

Early life and education[edit]

Born in Manhasset, New York, Johnsen attended Carle Place High School in Carle Place, New York, graduating in 1979 as its salutatorian.[6] She received her B.A. summa cum laude in economics and political science at Yale College in 1983 and her J.D. at Yale Law School in 1986, where she served as an Articles Editor of the Yale Law Journal.[6][7]

After graduating law school, Johnsen clerked for United States Appeals Court Judge Richard Dickson Cudahy of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit from September 1986 until August 1987.[6]

Professional career[edit]

Johnsen worked for the American Civil Liberties Union as a staff counsel fellow on a one-year fellowship from 1987 until 1988, and then worked for the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League (currently NARAL Pro-Choice America) from 1988 until 1993. From 1993 to 1998, Johnsen worked in the Office of Legal Counsel. She was a Deputy Assistant Attorney General from 1993 until 1996, and served as Acting Assistant Attorney General heading the OLC from 1997 until 1998. Johnsen joined the Indiana University faculty in 1998 upon leaving government service. She teaches Constitutional Law, the First Amendment, and Seminars in the Separation of Powers and Sexuality, Reproduction and the Constitution[1].

Johnsen is a member of the national boards of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and the Guttmacher Institute.

Nomination to Office of Legal Counsel[edit]

As President-Elect, Obama announced his intention to nominate Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel in the United States Department of Justice.[3] Her nomination was approved by the Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote and sent to the full Senate on March 19, 2009.[8]

In December 2009, Senator Patrick Leahy, the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, called on the Senate to approve Johnsen and several other nominees, and denounced the "unprecedented delays in the consideration of qualified and noncontroversial nominations".[9] The Washington Post agreed, editorializing that the treatment of Johnsen's nomination was a "travesty" and adding: "Ms. Johnsen is highly qualified and should be confirmed. At the very least, senators should have the decency to give her an up-or-down vote."[10] Nevertheless, the Senate did not act on the nomination before it ended its 2009 session. As a result, the nomination was sent back to the White House, leaving Obama to decide whether to renominate Johnsen.[11] Obama also had the option of making a recess appointment, which would have enabled Johnsen to fill the post until the end of the 2010 session of the Senate.

In early January 2010, White House officials began telling reporters that Obama was planning to renominate Johnsen to head the OLC.[12] On January 20, 2010, Obama renominated Johnsen to the post.[13]

Criticisms of Bush administration[edit]

The nomination encountered opposition from Republican Senators who cited Johnsen's criticisms of the OLC during the administration of President George W. Bush.[4][14] The New York Times reported that she had criticized OLC memoranda

that said the president could largely ignore international treaties and Congress in fighting terrorists and that critics have portrayed as allowing torture in interrogation, and criticized the legal theories behind the OLC's position in detail[15]

The broad reading of presidential authority was “outlandish,” and the constitutional arguments were “shockingly flawed,” Ms. Johnsen has written. While her language was harsh, it was also accurate, as the memos have largely been withdrawn, and among lawyers a consensus agreeing with her views has emerged.[16]

One Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator John Cornyn, said that Johnsen did not have the “requisite seriousness” for the post.[16] A Democratic member of the committee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, called such attacks hypocritical in light of Republicans' silence about the OLC during the Bush administration: "Where were you when those incompetent, ideological opinions were being issued?"[16]

Support and opposition[edit]

On April 16, 2009, Johnsen's nomination was endorsed by the Society of American Law Teachers, which described her as "an expert on Constitutional Law with an impressive resume of scholarship that illustrates the depth of her understanding of American jurisprudence."[17]

As of May 2009, there were believed to be 37 Republican Senators (out of 40) who would vote against confirming Johnsen.[18] Her nomination was endorsed by Senator Richard Lugar, a senior Republican from Johnsen's state of Indiana.[19] The remaining two Republicans, Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, have not announced their positions.[18] One other Democrat, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, joined Specter in expressing opposition to the nomination, but neither Nelson nor Specter publicly stated whether he would vote for a cloture motion to end a threatened Republican filibuster.[18] Johnsen was supported by the remaining 57 Democrats as of May 2009.[18]

Specter change of position[edit]

After Specter switched to the Democratic Party, Representative Joe Sestak announced that he would challenge Specter in the Democratic primary in 2010. In January 2010, Sestak criticized Specter for his role in blocking Johnsen's nomination.[20] Shortly thereafter, Specter announced that he would vote to confirm Johnsen.[21] By some counts, therefore, Johnsen's nomination may have had the 60 votes needed to overcome the threatened Republican filibuster, although the special election of Republican Scott Brown to be Massachusetts' junior senator might have complicated that.[21]

Withdrawal from consideration[edit]

Johnsen's nomination was withdrawn on April 9, 2010.[5] In a statement, Johnsen mentioned that the delays and strong political opposition had threatened her ability to restore the non-partisanship and efficiency of the Office of Legal Counsel.[5]

In January 2017, in an article for Slate.com, Johnsen described the "personal toll" of the Senate's refusal to vote on her nomination to head the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2009 and 2010. (She posited that Merrick Garland should be appointed to the US Supreme Court and then any future vacancy should be filled in proper order, claiming that the vacancy caused by the death of Anton Scalia "exists only as the result of the wrongful denial of the legitimacy of Obama's presidency. It is a breakdown of the very functioning of our democracy and a slap in the face to constitutional norms. It is an attempted theft that, if permitted, would bring longstanding consequences.") [22]


Johnsen is a Methodist who teaches Sunday school.[23] She and her husband, John Hamilton, Mayor of Bloomington, Indiana [24] have two children.[6] Prior to being mayor, Hamilton served as Secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and served as an elected member of the Board of Trustees for the Monroe County Community School Corporation. He also founded City First Bank of D.C. (City First), a certified Community Development Financial Institution dedicated to strengthening low-to-moderate-income communities.[24]

Johnsen's brother-in-law is United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Judge David Hamilton.


  1. ^ a b Dawn Johnsen Faculty Profile Archived 2008-12-19 at the Wayback Machine, Indiana University website bio
  2. ^ "Senate Judiciary Committee Johnsen Nomination Hearings". Senate Judiciary Committee. 2009-02-25. Archived from the original on April 26, 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-29. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ a b "President-elect Obama announces key Department of Justice posts". Change.gov: The Obama-Biden Transition Team. 2009-01-05. Archived from the original on 2009-04-30.
  4. ^ a b c "AP Sources: Obama Pick for Justice Post Withdraws" AP via The New York Times, Friday, April 9, 2010 5:27 p.m. ET. Retrieved 2010-04-09.
  5. ^ a b c Charlie Savage (April 9, 2010). "Obama Nominee for Justice Post Withdraws". New York Times.
  6. ^ a b c d Dawn Johnsen (2009-02-25). "Senate Judiciary Committee Questionnaire" (PDF). Senate Judiciary Committee. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2009-04-29. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ "The Yale Law Journal" (PDF). Yale University. 1986-03-01. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-06-02.
  8. ^ "Judiciary Panel Clears Johnsen For OLC Post". National Journal. March 19, 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-11-28. Retrieved 2009-12-27.
  9. ^ Woodrow, Stephanie (December 9, 2009). "Leahy: Confirm Nominees Before Recess". Main Justice. Archived from the original on 2009-12-15. Retrieved 2009-12-27.
  10. ^ "A Senate vote for courtesy". The Washington Post. December 23, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-28.
  11. ^ Ed, O'Keefe; Butterworth, Scott (December 25, 2009). "Senate confirms more than 30 U.S. posts, sends six back". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-12-28.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-02-06. Retrieved 2010-01-22.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/presidential-nominations-sent-senate-2
  14. ^ http://motherjones.com/mojo/2009/04/republicans-filibuster-obama-justice-department-nominee-dawn-johnsen
  15. ^ http://motherjones.com/mojo/2009/01/obama-nominates-dawn-johnsen-anti-yoo-assistant-attorney-general-office-legal-counsel
  16. ^ a b c Lewis, Neil A. (April 1, 2009). "Storm Clouds Gather Over Obama Nominees". The New York Times. pp. A20.
  17. ^ Barry, Margaret Martin; Deborah Waire Post (April 16, 2009). "Society of American Law Teachers—SALT-- Urges Confirmation of Professor Dawn Johnsen as Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel" (PDF). Society of American Law Teachers. Retrieved 2009-05-24.[permanent dead link]
  18. ^ a b c d Beutler, Brian (May 15, 2009). "In Limbo: Dawn Johnsen's Nomination Stalls Thanks to Democrats". Talking Points Memo. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
  19. ^ Smith, Sylvia A. (April 28, 2009). "Lugar to support IU law professor's nomination". The Journal Gazette.
  20. ^ Beutler, Brian (January 12, 2010). "Sestak To Specter: Don't Screw Over Dawn Johnsen Again". Talking Points Memo. Retrieved 2010-01-13.
  21. ^ a b Beutler, Brian (January 12, 2010). "After Withholding Endorsement, Specter To Support Key Obama DOJ Nominee". Talking Points Memo. Retrieved 2010-01-13.
  22. ^ Seat Merrick : Trump’s nominee shouldn’t get a hearing until Merrick Garland is seated, Dawn Johnsen, Slate.com, 2017-01-31
  23. ^ Lithwick, Dahlia (February 25, 2009). "Thou Shalt Not Blog". Slate.
  24. ^ a b https://bloomington.in.gov/mayor

External links[edit]