Saturday, June 18, 2011

George W. Obama and the OLC


Charlie Savage writes that President Obama took the unusual step of overruling the head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and the top counsel for the Defense Department in order to conclude that the U.S.'s participation in the war in Libya did not amount to "hostilities or "imminent hostilities." This meant that the 60 day clock in the War Powers Resolution did not continue to run. Hence, Obama was able to conclude that he was not in violation of the WPR's 60 day requirement because "hostilities" or "imminent hostilities" had not occurred since the beginning of April.
But Mr. Obama decided instead to adopt the legal analysis of several other senior members of his legal team — including the White House counsel, Robert Bauer, and the State Department legal adviser, Harold H. Koh — who argued that the United States military’s activities fell short of “hostilities.” Under that view, Mr. Obama needed no permission from Congress to continue the mission unchanged.

Presidents have the legal authority to override the legal conclusions of the Office of Legal Counsel and to act in a manner that is contrary to its advice, but it is extraordinarily rare for that to happen. Under normal circumstances, the office’s interpretation of the law is legally binding on the executive branch.
It is instructive to compare President Obama's actions with those of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who sought legal justification for his decision to engage in waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques," which constituted torture. Bush wanted above all to be able to deny that he was violating the anti-torture statute and other laws and treaties. So he found a small group of lawyers in the OLC, headed by John Yoo, and asked for their opinions. This short-circuited the usual process through which the OLC collected views from various agencies and then used them to develop legal opinions for the executive branch. That is, Bush (assisted by his Vice-President, Dick Cheney) arranged matters so that decisions about waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques would be in the hands of lawyers he knew would tell him yes; the normal process of collating opinions was short-circuited and other lawyers were effectively frozen out.

Obama's practice is different, but it has disturbing similarities. Normally, Obama would have asked the OLC for its opinion, and as noted above, the OLC would have polled legal expertise in various agencies, consulted its precedents, had long discussions, and then come up with a scholarly opinion that is normally binding on the executive branch. Instead, Obama routed around the OLC, asking for opinions from various lawyers, including the White House Counsel and the Attorney-Advisor for the State Department. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that from the outset Obama was prospecting for opinions that would tell him that his actions were legal, and once he found them, he felt comfortable in rejecting the opinion of the OLC.

Obama's strategy, like Bush's, also short circuits the normal process of seeking opinions from the OLC; it simply does so in a different way.

By bypassing a careful set of procedures designed to produce careful legal opinions, George W. Bush was able to say that he was following the OLC, or at least a rump of the OLC. But he was effectively undermining the OLC's function as an honest broker of executive branch opinions. Obama also bypassed this same careful set of procedures by canvassing various lawyers until he found opinions he liked better than the OLC's. If one is disturbed by Bush's misuse of the process for vetting legal questions, one should be equally disturbed by Obama's irregular procedures.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me make clear that there is no single way that the Executive Branch has to be organized. The Constitution does not speak to it. George Washington consulted various cabinet members about the constitutionality of the First Bank of the United States, finally settling on the views of his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. But this was early in the nation's history, and long before the creation of the Justice Department following the Civil War and the creation of the OLC itself in the twentieth century.

Moreover, the practice of having the OLC serve as the canvasser of legal opinions from various parts of the executive branch, and the custom of treating the OLC's opinions-- reached after ample deliberation--as binding on the executive branch is not constitutionally required. The President may disregard the OLC without violating the Constitution.

However, there are good reasons why these practices and customs were implemented. They were designed to prevent Presidents from treating their lawyers like so many guests at a cocktail party that they can causally survey in order to pick out their friends. These procedures exist because there is almost always a prominent and skillful lawyer in the Administration who will tell the President pretty much what he wants to hear.

The OLC's procedures are designed to prevent precisely this sort of cherry picking. If the President can simply canvas the opinions of enough such lawyers he is not restrained very much by the law. Indeed, it is particularly relevant here that one of the lawyers who supported the President's position on Libya is the White House Counsel. The White House Counsel's office, as it has developed over time, is much closer to the political arm of the President's operations, and much much less likely ever to cross the President. White House Counsels who do not facilitate the President's political goals do not remain long as White House Counsels. Not surprisingly, the White House Counsel's office does not have the same academic or judicious traditions of the OLC. Whether or not one thinks that the OLC is likely to say yes to the President simply because it sits in the Justice Department, the White House Counsel's office is likely to be ten times more flexible.

The fact that Obama is a former professor of constitutional law does not justify his scuttling practices that are designed, over long periods of time, to improve legal deliberations and help ensure that presidents conform to the law. Former professors of constitutional law, like current ones, have been known to disagree among themselves about what the law requires; they have even been known to make mistakes and engage in serious misjudgments.

The fact that Obama may think he is smarter and more learned than George W. Bush also does not justify his practice. The next President, or the one after that, may think themselves smarter than Obama. They will certainly find a group of able lawyers somewhere in their Administration to tell them so. Obama came into office promising to reform the abuses of the Bush Administration and its manipulation of the OLC. The best way to do that is not to create entirely new abuses of one's own.

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