Dawn Johnsen on Koh v. Yoo

Former OLC nominee Dawn Johnsen objects to Eric Posner’s suggestion that Harold Koh and John Yoo are “peas in a pod” for their aggressive, politically motivated legal interpretations (albeit peas of differing ideological stripes). In her view, both Yoo and Koh are wrong, but in meaningfully different ways.

Yoo’s infamous memos on torture and other subjects, you’ll recall, made sweeping claims of presidential authority to act contrary to clear federal statutory commands, based on a radical view of the president’s constitutional war powers. This view denies Congress the ultimate authority to prohibit torture, no matter how clearly defined, where the president as commander-in-chief deems it warranted. More, Yoo’s legal claims—and the Bush administration’s executive actions—were kept hidden from the public and ultimately were revealed only through government leaks.

That extreme and secret claim of a sweeping authority to violate statutes simply has nothing in common with the Obama administration’s very public engagement on the meaning of a controversial provision of the War Powers Resolution: its requirement that, after 60 days, the president must terminate military action not specifically authorized by Congress. Since its enactment, interpretation of the “60-day clock” has been the subject of repeated public debate between the executive branch and Congress. Here, Obama is openly joining that debate, but expressly is not challenging Congress’ legislative authority to establish limits on his conduct of war.

President Nixon vetoed the War Powers Resolution because he believed the 60-day clock interfered with the president’s war powers. Congress disagreed and overrode his veto, and a published 1980 OLC opinion (correctly) found the 60-day clock constitutional. The Obama administration asserts that the 1980 memorandum remains in force and that it is not challenging the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution. By contrast, in one of his memos, Yoo baldly states—without authority or any reference to the contrary 1980 OLC opinion—that neither this nor any other statute “can place any limits on the President’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response.”

One key point for Johnsen are that the Obama Administration’s interpretation of “hostilities” is public, whereas the Bush Administration’s positions were secret. Yet the Obama Administration’s rejection of OLC’s conclusions (to which Johnsen also objects) is public only because of diligent reporting and helpful leaks.

POST-SCRIPT: It seems to me that the Yoo-Koh comparison has the most force is with regard to statutory interpretation, and Johnsen does not address this point. John Yoo provided the administration with a highly questionable but politically desirable interpretation of what constitutes “torture.” Harold Koh provided the administration with a highly questionable but politically desirable interpretation of what constitutes “hostilities.”

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