Dawn Johnsen brought a convention of liberal lawyers to their feet Thursday, calling on them to remain upbeat despite her failed nomination to head the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.
Johnsen spoke to the annual meeting of the American Constitution Society, in what she said were her first public remarks since her confirmation hearing in February 2009. She withdrew her nomination two months ago, after more than a year of waiting for Senate Democrats to cobble together enough votes to confirm her.
She told an overflowing crowd that she did not want her experience to discourage others from taking on controversial causes.
“As to whether I would have changed any of my positions or softened my stances or decided to just sit out a few issues, the message could not be more clear or more simple: I have no regrets,” Johnsen said.
A law professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, she said her biography “should hardly be used as an example of why we should not stand on principle or speak out in public.” Her willingness to speak out, she added, “has not hurt me professionally. Just the opposite.”
Johnsen recounted, for example, the opportunity she had three years out of law school to co-write an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1989 case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, in which the justices upheld abortion rights. At the time, Johnsen was legal director for NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Republicans last year seized on a footnote from that brief, accusing Johnsen of equating pregnancy with slavery. But she noted Thursday that the brief was quoted in The New York Times at the time of the case and was published in full in two law reviews, and that the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of her side. “Whatever you think about that footnote, it was a damn good brief,” Johnsen said.
“Do you think for one moment that I wish I had sat that fight out, due to caution and calculation? Not a chance, not for a moment, not on your life,” she added. “One should not live one’s life deciding whether and how to write such briefs based on calculated judgments about possible future political payoffs.”
In the years after Webster, Johnsen continued enjoying professional success. She worked in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration and was its acting director for a year. She’s been at Indiana University since 1998, and since her failed nomination, she has rejoined the board of the American Constitution Society.
In her 13-minute speech, Johnsen stayed away from attacking, or even mentioning, the Republican senators who held up her nomination. She noted, though, that she had the support of a majority of the Senate and she called the delay she faced “nearly unprecedented.” She did not criticize, or mention, the White House’s handling of her nomination.
She singled out three people for thanks in helping her: Marge Baker, the executive vice president of People for the American Way; Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Walter Dellinger, who led OLC during President Bill Clinton’s first term and now heads O’Melveny & Myers’ appellate practice.