What Would Johnsen Do On the DC Voting Rights Act?

            Dawn Johnsen, the President’s nominee to head the Office of Legal Counsel, has been highly critical of OLC’s performance during the last administration.  For example, she has accused John Yoo of “devis[ing] bogus constitutional arguments for outlandishly expansive presidential power” and has characterized Yoo’s defense of his own legal reasoning as “not merely false, but irresponsibly and dangerously false in a way that impugns OLC’s integrity over time and threatens to undermine public faith in the possibility that any administration can be expected to adhere to the rule of law.” 

            On December 21, 2004, Johnsen, along with other former OLC lawyers, issued a manifesto entitled “Principles to Guide the Office of Legal Counsel” to ensure that OLC adheres to “the rule of law” in the future.  At the core of these principles is the concept that OLC should not engage in results-oriented legal analysis in order to support policies of the incumbent administration.  For example, the first principle is  

When providing legal advice to guide contemplated executive branch action, OLC should provide an accurate and honest appraisal of applicable law, even if that advice will constrain the administration’s pursuit of desired policies. The advocacy model of lawyering, in which lawyers craft merely plausible legal arguments to support their clients’ desired actions, inadequately promotes the President’s constitutional obligation to ensure the legality of executive action. 

            Similarly, Johnsen and her colleagues advise that OLC “should maintain internal systems and practices to help ensure that OLC’s legal advice is of the highest possible quality and represents the best possible view of the law.”  Not surprisingly, this principle requires that “OLC should afford due respect for the precedential value of OLC  opinions from administrations of both parties; although OLC’s current best view of the law sometimes will require repudiation of OLC precedent, OLC should never disregard precedent without careful consideration and detailed explanation.”

            Given these principles, it is inconceivable that Johnsen would advise the President to sign legislation that OLC has previously declared to be unconstitutional without “careful consideration and detailed explanation” from OLC as to why it has changed its mind.  This is particularly true if the proposed legislation would do violence to both the text and structure of the Constitution, conflict with the understanding and intent of the framers of both the original Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment, contravene historical practice since the founding of the Republic and be inconsistent with controlling judicial precedent.  

            I refer, of course, to the District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act of 2009, which the Senate is scheduled to consider this week.  Less than two years ago the OLC analyzed the question of whether Congress could provide by statute for D.C. to have a voting representative in the House of Representatives, and found that “[i]n the absence of a constitutional amendment . . . the explicit provisions of the Constitution do not permit Congress to grant congressional representation to the District through legislation.”


This conclusion should not be, to put it mildly, controversial. The Constitution provides that “[t]he House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States,” and, as the Constitution makes clear and virtually everyone concedes, D.C. is not a state. Indeed, in the 2000 case of Adams v. Clinton, a three judge panel, in a decision affirmed by the Supreme Court, rejected the argument that D.C. could be treated as a state for purposes of granting representation in Congress: “Defendants argue that . . . the Constitution leaves no doubt that only the residents of actual states are entitled to representation. An examination of the Constitution’s language and history, and of the relevant judicial precedents, persuades us that defendants are correct and that the District-as-state theory is untenable.”

One would think, if one were unfamiliar with the ingenuity of lawyers, that this would be the end of the matter. Nevertheless, there are some lawyers and legal scholars who argue that Congress does have the power to enact the proposed legislation. Most prominent among them is Professor Viet Dinh, a former high-ranking official of the Bush Justice Department, who, interestingly, is also closely associated with the theories of executive power that Johnsen has so vigorously denounced.

It would be charitable to say that the arguments put forth by Dinh and others in favor of the constitutionality of the D.C. House Voting Rights Act are even plausible. As Professor Mark Scarberry suggests in a forthcoming article, the only “somewhat plausible” aspect of the arguments is the assumption that the lack of voting rights for D.C. was an oversight on the part of the framers, an assumption that he tries to lay to rest. Professor Jonathan Turley describes the proposed legislation as “one of most premeditated unconstitutional acts by Congress in decades.” Even some who favor the legislation, like Professor Rick Hasen, acknowledge that it is “probably unconstitutional.”

In any event, we know that Johnsen would never permit OLC to “craft merely plausible legal arguments” to support the President’s desired policy goals. She would never advise the President to sign legislation that was unconstitutional under OLC’s best appraisal of the law, even if there are plausible arguments to the contrary. And she would certainly never permit OLC to overrule its prior opinion without “careful consideration and detailed explanation.”

Would she?