Dawn Johnsen is making a tentative return to the classroom after seven months of waiting for the Senate to confirm her to one of the most politically sensitive posts in the Justice Department.
Johnsen, nominated in January to head the Office of Legal Counsel, will teach a seminar this fall at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. She will commute weekly from Washington to Bloomington, Ind., while she continues to wait for confirmation, said Debbie O’Leary, a spokeswoman for the law school.
The seminar will focus on sexuality and the law, so it will likely touch on one of the same topics — abortion — that has led Republicans to filibuster Johnsen. She was legal director of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America from 1988 to 1993, authoring an amicus brief in the major Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).
Johnsen had hoped to begin months ago at the Office of Legal Counsel, even moving with her family to Washington over the summer, friends and colleagues say. She worked in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration, serving for a year as acting head of the office, and has taught at Indiana University since 1998.
“Since she’s still on faculty, why not teach?” O’Leary said.
The seminar, which Johnsen has taught before, is aimed at 2Ls and 3Ls. It’s titled “Sexuality, Reproduction and the Law.” According to the course description, students will “explore governmental regulation of sexuality and reproduction in the United States. We will focus on regulation aimed at sexual activity, reproduction and sexual orientation, with particular attention to the constitutional protections afforded in those areas.”
News of the course was first reported on Blue Indiana, a Democratic blog that interprets the course as another sign of delay for Johnsen. The seminar will meet once a week for three hours until the mid-October fall break, when the classroom portion ends and students will focus on completing a research paper. There is no exam. Class sign-ups begin Monday.
What if the Senate confirms Johnsen while she’s still teaching? She and the law school’s dean, Lauren Robel, have been working out contingency plans, O’Leary said. For example, if confirmation comes after the fall break, Johnsen would still be able to advise and grade students on their research papers and complete the semester.
“I think you have to be [flexible] if you expect someone in this position to teach,” O’Leary said.
President Barack Obama named Johnsen as his choice for the Office of Legal Counsel on Jan. 5, and the Senate Judiciary Committee gave its backing March 19. The office advises the executive branch on interpretations of law and the Constitution — including, during the Bush administration, whether waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques are legal.
Republicans have taken aim at Johnsen’s writings about abortion and national security, making her wait longer for confirmation than any other Obama nominee. Her would-be predecessor, Steven Bradbury, served almost four years without confirmation after Democrats blocked a vote on his nomination, but serving without confirmation is not an option for Johnsen because she is not currently working in the office.