Johnsen (above) would have led the Office of Legal Counsel, advising the executive branch on thorny questions of how to interpret the law and the Constitution. In a statement, she said she had hoped to restore the office to “its best nonpartisan traditions” — a goal that fell apart when senators objected to her writings about abortion rights and national security.
The withdrawal is a blow to liberal legal activists who had celebrated Johnsen’s nomination and seen her as one of the few liberals picked for the Justice Department. A law professor at Indiana University, she wrote widely in criticizing the George W. Bush administration and is a former legal director for the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“She was such as first-class candidate,” said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice. “She had the right credentials and enthusiasm for the job. I am very disappointed by this outcome. She would have been a very strong leader at OLC. She was a breath of fresh air and would have ushered in a very positive and welcome change.”
For conservatives, the withdrawal represents a victory after more than a year of speaking out against Johnsen. They are expected to push for a more moderate replacement.
Johnsen twice won the backing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which voted along partisan lines, but it was never clear that she would survive a Senate filibuster. In her statement, she said she had the support of a “strong majority” of senators.
“OLC plays a critical role in upholding the rule of law and must provide advice unvarnished by politics or partisan ambition,” she said, noting her time in the office during the Clinton administration.
“Restoring OLC to its best nonpartisan traditions was my primary objective for my anticipated service in this administration,” she added. “Unfortunately, my nomination has met with lengthy delays and political opposition that threaten that objective and prevent OLC from functioning at full strength. I hope that the withdrawal of my nomination will allow this important office to be filled promptly.”
A spokesman for President Barack Obama, in a statement, said the president will work to identify a replacement.
The Office of Legal Counsel was at the center of the Bush-era debate over how far interrogators can go before they commit torture. Debate roiled within the Justice Department for four years over whether to discipline two OLC lawyers, Jay Bybee and John Yoo, who worked on the torture issue.
Largely because of antiterrorism questions, the office has not had a Senate-confirmed leader since July 2004. Democrats blocked Bush nominee Steven Bradbury for four years, but Bradbury could at least work in the office during his nomination because he was already employed there when Bush nominated him.
In a statement, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt called Johnsen a “highly-respected constitutional scholar.”
“Her credentials are exemplary and her commitment to the rule of law has been proven time and again, but it is now clear that Senate Republicans will not allow her to be confirmed,” LaBolt said. “After years of politicization of the Office during the previous administration, the President believes it is time for the Senate to move beyond politics and allow the Office of Legal Counsel to serve the role it was intended to — to provide impartial legal advice and constitutional analysis to the executive branch.”
Mike Scarcella contributed to this story. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi. An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed LaBolt's statement.