The top ranks of the U.S. Justice Department are almost at full strength, after the Senate today confirmed nominees for three high-level spots that had been vacant for months or years.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who’s been serving on an acting basis in DOJ’s No. 2 position, was the most divisive of the nominees because of his support for using civilian courts to try suspected terrorists. He won confirmation 55-42 and succeeds David Ogden, who stepped down in February 2010 to return to Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel will have its first Senate-confirmed head since 2004, after heated battles over the definition of torture and other national-security questions kept senators from confirming nominees. Virginia Seitz, a partner in Sidley Austin’s Washington office, won confirmation on a voice vote and succeeds Jack Goldsmith, now a professor at Harvard Law School. The office has received attention most recently for its role in determining the legality of U.S. involvement in Libya.
And DOJ’s National Security Division will be led by Lisa Monaco, a former career department official who has been serving as Cole’s top deputy. Monaco won confirmation on a voice vote and succeeds David Kris, who resigned in March to become general counsel at Intellectual Ventures, a technology company based in Bellevue, Wash.
Together with the Senate’s confirmation this month of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., the action today leaves the Tax Division as the only major DOJ component without a Senate-confirmed head. President Barack Obama has not nominated anyone for the tax position since his initial choice, Mary Smith, withdrew last year. Serving on an acting basis, Cole would have needed to leave his position at the end of 2011.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. released a statement praising the new appointees. “I’m confident they will provide invaluable leadership to the department, and will play a critical role in protecting the American people, ensuring the fairness and integrity of our financial markets and restoring the traditional missions of the department,” he said.
The Senate deadlock broke as Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he reached an agreement with Holder on getting information related to a controversial anti-gun-smuggling program.
Still, even as Republicans allowed the votes to go forward, Grassley reiterated their longstanding criticisms of Cole. The former Bryan Cave partner’s views on trying terrorists topped Grassley’s list.
“Military tribunals have many advantages to civilian criminal courts and are better equipped to deal with dangerous terrorists and classified evidence while preserving due process. I’m troubled that Mr. Cole does not appear to share this belief,” Grassley said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), in a separate speech, pointed to Cole’s 13 years as a career federal prosecutor and to his work as a special counsel to the House Ethics Committee in the 1990s, investigating then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “He has the experience, he has the character and he has the commitment to fill this very important position,” Cardin said.