Office of Legal Counsel: Wikis


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The Office of Legal Counsel is an office in the United States Department of Justice that assists the Attorney General in his function as legal adviser to the President and all executive branch agencies.



The Office of Legal Counsel was created in 1934 by an act of US Congress, as part of a larger reorganization of executive branch administrative agencies. It was first headed by an assistant solicitor general. In 1951, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath made it a division led by an assistant attorney, and named it the Executive Adjudications Division. This name was changed to Office of Legal Counsel in an administrative order by Attorney General Brownell, issued April 3, 1953.[1]


The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) assists the Attorney General of the United States in his function as legal adviser to the President and all the executive branch agencies, hence the appellation "the president's law firm."[2]. The OLC drafts legal opinions of the Attorney General and also provides its own written opinions and oral advice in response to requests from the Counsel to the President, the various agencies of the executive branch, and offices within the Department of Justice. Such requests typically deal with legal issues of particular complexity and importance or about which two or more agencies are in disagreement. The Office also is responsible for providing legal advice to the executive branch on all constitutional questions and reviewing pending legislation for constitutionality. The decisions of the Office are binding on all executive agencies.

All executive orders and proclamations proposed to be issued by the President are reviewed by the OLC for form and legality, as are various other matters that require the President's formal approval.

In addition to serving as, in effect, outside counsel for the other agencies of the executive branch, the OLC also functions as general counsel for the Department of Justice itself. It reviews all proposed orders of the Attorney General and all regulations requiring the Attorney General's approval.

Newsweek characterized the OLC as "the most important government office you've never heard of. Among its bosses -- before they went on the Supreme Court -- were William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia. Within the executive branch, including the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency, the OLC acts as a kind of mini Supreme Court. Its carefully worded opinions are regarded as binding precedent -- final say on what the president and all his agencies can and cannot legally do."[3] However, this binding effect has never been tested in a U.S. court.

List of Assistant Attorneys General

  • Angus D. MacLean (1933-1935)[4]
  • Golden W. Bell (1935-1939)
  • Charles Fahy (1940-1941)
  • Oscar S. Cox (1942-1943)
  • Hugh B. Cox (1943-1945)
  • Harold W. Judson (1945-1946)
  • George T. Washington (1946-1949)
  • Abraham J. Harris (1950-1951)
  • Joseph C. Duggan (1951-1952)
  • J. Lee Rankin (1953-1956)
  • W. Wilson White (1957-1957), after a short tenure, selected to be first head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division
  • Malcolm R. Wilkey (1958-1959)
  • Robert Kramer (1959-1961)
  • Nicholas deB. Katzenbach (1961-1962)
  • Norbert A. Schlei (1962-1966)
  • Frank H. Wozencraft (1966-1969)
  • William H. Rehnquist (1969-1971), later nominated and confirmed as Associate, and subsequent Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
  • Ralph E. Erickson (1971-1972)
  • Roger C. Cramton (1972-1973)
  • Antonin Scalia (1974-1977), later nominated and confirmed as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
  • John M. Harmon (1977-1981)[5]
  • Theodore B. Olson (1981-1984), later became U.S. Solicitor General
  • Charles J. Cooper (1985-1988)
  • Douglas Kmiec (1988-1989)
  • William P. Barr (1989-1990)
  • Michael Luttig (1990-1991)
  • Timothy Flanigan (1991-1992)
  • Walter Dellinger (1993-1994), later became Acting U.S. Solicitor General
  • Beth Nolan, served as Acting Assistant AG, OLC, while Deputy Assistant Attorney General. Nominated to become Assistant AG, OLC, but Senate did not vote on the nomination. Became White House Counsel in 1996.[6 ]
  • Dawn Johnsen, served as Acting AAG from 1996-1998
  • Randolph D. Moss, 1998-2001 (served as Acting AAG from 1998-2000; nominated November 9, 1999; Recess-appointed Aug. 3, 2000; confirmed by United States Senate December 15, 2000)
  • Jay S. Bybee (2001-2003), in charge when the OLC issued the "Torture memo"
  • Jack Goldsmith (2003-2004), professor at Harvard Law School and author of The Terror Presidency (after resigning from OLC)
  • Daniel Levin, served as Acting AAG from 2004-2005
  • Steven G. Bradbury, served as Acting AAG from 2005-2007 (nominated June 23, 2005; nomination approved by Senate Judiciary Committee but never voted on by full Senate), continued to function as senior appointed official in charge of OLC until Jan. 20, 2009
  • David J. Barron, Professor at Harvard Law School and currently serving as Acting AAG

In the news

In January 2009, President Barack Obama announced his intention to nominate Dawn Johnsen to the position of Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel.[7] She had previously held that position, in an acting capacity, during the Clinton administration.[8][9]

During the entirety of President George W. Bush's second term, Steven G. Bradbury served as acting head of OLC. He was first officially nominated on June 23, 2005, and then repeatedly re-nominated because of Senate inaction.[10] His position became a point of political friction between the Republican President and the Democratic-controlled 110th Congress, with Democrats arguing that Bradbury was in the position illegally and Republicans arguing that Democrats were using his nomination to score political points.[11][12]


  1. ^ Huston, Luther A. (1967). The Department of Justice. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.  
  2. ^ "The President's Law Firm," Slate, January 6, 2009.
  3. ^ Klaidman, Daniel; Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas (2006-02-06). "Palace Revolt". Newsweek: p. 34. Retrieved 2008-10-22.  
  4. ^ Register, Department of Justice and the Courts of the United States, United States Government Printing Office (1972-1976), p. 131. "Office of Legal Counsel (Formerly Office of Assistant Solicitor General and Executive Adjudications Division," list of officeholders through 1973.
  5. ^ John M. Harmon bio, Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody.
  6. ^ "Nolan to Become 1st Female White House Counsel". Los Angeles Times. August 20, 1999. Retrieved August 2, 2009.  
  7. ^ "President-elect Obama announces key Department of Justice posts". The Obama-Biden Transition Team. 2009-01-05.  
  8. ^ Eric Lichtblau, "Obama Names 4 for Justice Jobs in Break From Bush Path," New York Times, January 5, 2009.
  9. ^ Ben Smith, "Bush's legal foes now Obama's legal team," Politico, January 24, 2009.
  10. ^ Presidential Nominations database, via THOMAS (accessed January 24, 2009).
  11. ^ Spencer Ackerman, "Who Is Steve Bradbury?," TPM Muckraker, October 19, 2007.
  12. ^ "Webb opens, closes vacant Senate session," CNN, December 26, 2007.

External links



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