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The President should require the Office of Legal Counsel to publish any legal opinions regarding policies adopted by the Executive Branch

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The President should require the Office of Legal Counsel to publish any legal opinions regarding policies adopted by the Executive Branch.

The CP is competitive and solves the case—OLC rulings do not actually remove authority but nevertheless hold binding precedential value on the executive.

Trevor W. Morrison, October 2010. Professor of Law, Columbia Law School. “STARE DECISIS IN THE OFFICE OF LEGAL COUNSEL,” Columbia Law Review, 110 Colum. L. Rev. 1448, Lexis.
On the other hand, an OLC that says "yes" too often is not in the client's long-run interest. n49 Virtually all of OLC's clients have their own legal staffs, including the White House Counsel's Office in the White House and the general counsel's offices in other departments and agencies. Those offices are capable of answering many of the day-to-day issues that arise in those components. They typically turn to OLC when the issue is sufficiently controversial or complex (especially on constitutional questions) that some external validation holds special value. n50 For example, when a department confronts a difficult or delicate constitutional question in the course of preparing to embark upon a new program or course of action that raises difficult or politically sensitive legal questions, it has an interest in being able to point to a credible source affirming the  [*1462]  legality of its actions. n51 The in-house legal advice of the agency's general counsel is unlikely to carry the same weight. n52 Thus, even though those offices might possess the expertise necessary to answer at least many of the questions they currently send to OLC, in some contexts they will not take that course because a "yes" from the in-house legal staff is not as valuable as a "yes" from OLC. But that value depends on OLC maintaining its reputation for serious, evenhanded analysis, not mere advocacy. n53

The risk, however, is that OLC's clients will not internalize the long-run costs of taxing OLC's integrity. This is in part because the full measure of those costs will be spread across all of OLC's clients, not just the client agency now before it. The program whose legality the client wants OLC to review, in contrast, is likely to be something in which the client has an immediate and palpable stake. Moreover, the very fact that the agency has come to OLC for legal advice will often mean it thinks there is  [*1463]  at least a plausible argument that the program is lawful. In that circumstance, the agency is unlikely to see any problem in a "yes" from OLC.

Still, it would be an overstatement to say that OLC risks losing its client base every time it contemplates saying "no." One reason is custom. In some areas, there is a longstanding tradition - rising to the level of an expectation - that certain executive actions or decisions will not be taken without seeking OLC's advice. One example is OLC's bill comment practice, in which it reviews legislation pending in Congress for potential constitutional concerns. If it finds any serious problems, it writes them up and forwards them to the Office of Management and Budget, which combines OLC's comments with other offices' policy reactions to the legislation and generates a coordinated administration position on the legislation. n54 That position is then typically communicated to Congress, either formally or informally. While no statute or regulation mandates OLC's part in this process, it is a deeply entrenched, broadly accepted practice. Thus, although some within the Executive Branch might find it frustrating when OLC raises constitutional concerns in bills the administration wants to support as a policy matter, and although the precise terms in which OLC's constitutional concerns are passed along to Congress are not entirely in OLC's control, there is no realistic prospect that OLC would ever be cut out of the bill comment process entirely. Entrenched practice, then, provides OLC with some measure of protection from the pressure to please its clients.

But there are limits to that protection. Most formal OLC opinions do not arise out of its bill comment practice, which means most are the product of a more truly voluntary choice by the client to seek OLC's advice. And as suggested above, although the Executive Branch at large has an interest in OLC's credibility and integrity, the preservation of those virtues generally falls to OLC itself. OLC's nonlitigating function makes this all the more true. Whereas, for example, the Solicitor General's aim of prevailing before the Supreme Court limits the extent to which she can profitably pursue an extreme agenda inconsistent with current doctrine, OLC faces no such immediate constraint. Whether OLC honors its oft-asserted commitment to legal advice based on its best view of the law depends largely on its own self-restraint.

2. Formal Requests, Binding Answers, and Lawful Alternatives. - Over time, OLC has developed practices and policies that help maintain its independence and credibility. First, before it provides a written opinion, n55 OLC typically requires that the request be in writing from the head or general counsel of the requesting agency, that the request be as specific and concrete as possible, and that the agency provide its own written  [*1464]  views on the issue as part of its request. n56 These requirements help constrain the requesting agency. Asking a high-ranking member of the agency to commit the agency's views to writing, and to present legal arguments in favor of those views, makes it more difficult for the agency to press extreme positions.

Second, as noted in the Introduction, n57 OLC's legal advice is treated as binding within the Executive Branch until withdrawn or overruled. n58 As a formal matter, the bindingness of the Attorney General's (or, in the modern era, OLC's) legal advice has long been uncertain. n59 The issue has never required formal resolution, however, because by longstanding tradition the advice is treated as binding. n60 OLC protects that tradition today by generally refusing to provide advice if there is any doubt about whether the requesting entity will follow it. n61 This guards against "advice-shopping by entities willing to abide only by advice they like." n62 More broadly, it helps ensure that OLC's answers matter. An agency displeased with OLC's advice cannot simply ignore the advice. The agency might  [*1465]  construe any ambiguity in OLC's advice to its liking, and in some cases might even ask OLC to reconsider its advice. n63 But the settled practice of treating OLC's advice as binding ensures it is not simply ignored.

In theory, the very bindingness of OLC's opinions creates a risk that agencies will avoid going to OLC in the first place, relying either on their general counsels or even other executive branch offices to the extent they are perceived as more likely to provide welcome answers. This is only a modest risk in practice, however. As noted above, legal advice obtained from an office other than OLC - especially an agency's own general counsel - is unlikely to command the same respect as OLC advice. n64 Indeed, because OLC is widely viewed as "the executive branch's chief legal advisor," n65 an agency's decision not to seek OLC's advice is likely to be viewed by outside observers with skepticism, especially if the in-house advice approves a program or initiative of doubtful legality.

OLC has also developed certain practices to soften the blow of legal advice not to a client's liking. Most significantly, after concluding that a client's proposed course of action is unlawful, OLC frequently works with the client to find a lawful way to pursue its desired ends. n66 As the OLC Guidelines put it, "when OLC concludes that an administration proposal is impermissible, it is appropriate for OLC to go on to suggest modifications that would cure the defect, and OLC should stand ready to work with the administration to craft lawful alternatives." n67 This is a critical component of OLC's work, and distinguishes it sharply from the courts. In addition to "providing a means by which the executive branch lawyer can contribute to the ability of the popularly-elected President and his administration to achieve important policy goals," n68 in more instrumental terms the practice can also reduce the risk of gaming by OLC's clients. And that, in turn, helps preserve the bindingness of OLC's opinions. n69

 [*1466]  To be sure, OLC's opinions are treated as binding only to the extent they are not displaced by a higher authority. A subsequent judicial decision directly on point will generally be taken to supersede OLC's work, and always if it is from the Supreme Court. OLC's opinions are also subject to "reversal" by the President or the Attorney General. n70 Such reversals are rare, however. As a formal matter, Dawn Johnsen has argued that "the President or attorney general could lawfully override OLC only pursuant to a good faith determination that OLC erred in its legal analysis. The President would violate his constitutional obligation if he were to reject OLC's advice solely on policy grounds." n71 Solely is a key word here, especially for the President. Although his oath of office obliges him to uphold the Constitution, n72 it is not obvious he would violate that oath by pursuing policies that he thinks are plausibly constitutional even if he has not concluded they fit his best view of the law. It is not clear, in other words, that the President's oath commits him to seeking and adhering to a single best view of the law, as opposed to any reasonable or plausible view held in good faith. Yet even assuming the President has some space here, it is hard to see how his oath permits him to reject OLC's advice solely on policy grounds if he concludes that doing so is indefensible as a legal matter. n73 So the President needs at least a plausible legal basis for  [*1467]  disagreeing with OLC's advice, which itself would likely require some other source of legal advice for him to rely upon.

The White House Counsel's Office might seem like an obvious candidate. But despite recent speculation that the size of that office during the Obama Administration might reflect an intention to use it in this fashion, n74 it continues to be virtually unheard of for the White House to reverse OLC's legal analysis. For one thing, even a deeply staffed White House Counsel's Office typically does not have the time to perform the kind of research and analysis necessary to produce a credible basis for reversing an OLC opinion. n75 For another, as with attempts to rely in the first place on in-house advice in lieu of OLC, any reversal of OLC by the White House Counsel is likely to be viewed with great skepticism by outside observers. If, for example, a congressional committee demands to know why the Executive Branch thinks a particular program is lawful, a response that relies on the conclusions of the White House Counsel is unlikely to suffice if the committee knows that OLC had earlier concluded otherwise. Rightly or wrongly, the White House Counsel's analysis is likely to be treated as an exercise of political will, not dispassionate legal analysis. Put another way, the same reasons that lead the White House to seek OLC's legal advice in the first place - its reputation for  [*1468]  providing candid, independent legal advice based on its best view of the law - make an outright reversal highly unlikely. n76

Of course, the White House Counsel's Office may well be in frequent contact with OLC on an issue OLC has been asked to analyze, and in many cases is likely to make it abundantly clear what outcome the White House prefers. n77 But that is a matter of presenting arguments to OLC in support of a particular position, not discarding OLC's conclusion when it comes out the other way. n78The White House is not just any other client, and so the nature of - and risks posed by - communications between it and OLC on issues OLC is analyzing deserve special attention. I take that up in Part III. n79 My point at this stage is simply that the prospect of literal reversal by the White House is remote and does not meaningfully threaten the effective bindingness of OLC's decisions.


The affirmative is a form of lawfare which maps out legal zones of violence. Their securitizing language cements an epistemologically suspect juridical warfare which naturalizes preemptive violence

John MORRISSEY, Lecturer in Political and Cultural Geography, National University of Ireland, 11 [“Liberal Lawfare and Biopolitics: US Juridical Warfare in the War on Terror,” Geopolitics, 16:280–305, 2011]
Foucault’s envisioning of a more governmentalised and securitized modernity, framed by a ubiquitous architecture of security, speaks on various levels to the contemporary US military’s efforts in the war on terror, but I want to mention three specifically, which I draw upon through the course of the paper. First, in the long war in the Middle East and Central Asia, the US military actively seeks to legally facilitate both the ‘circulation’ and ‘conduct’ of a target population: its own troops. This may not be commonly recognized in biopolitical critiques of the war on terror but, as will be seen later, the Judge Advocate General Corps has long been proactive in a ‘juridical’ form of warfare, or lawfare, that sees US troops as ‘technical-biopolitical’ objects of management whose ‘operational capabilities’ on the ground must be legally enabled. Second, as I have explored elsewhere, the US military’s ‘grand strategy of security’ in the war on terror – which includes a broad spectrum of tactics and technologies of security, including juridical techniques – has been relentlessly justified by a power/knowledge assemblage in Washington that has successfully scripted a neoliberal political economy argument for its global forward presence.19 Securitizing economic volatility and threat and regulating a neoliberal world order for the good of the global economy are powerful discursive touchstones registered perennially on multiple forums in Washington – from the Pentagon to the war colleges, from IR and Strategic Studies policy institutes to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees – and the endgame is the legitimisation of the military’s geopolitical and biopolitical technologies of power overseas.20 Finally, Foucault’s conceptualisation of a ‘society of security’ is marked by an urge to ‘govern by contingency’, to ‘anticipate the aleatory’, to ‘allow for the evental’.21 It is a ‘security society’ in which the very language of security is promissory, therapeutic and appealing to liberal improvement. The lawfare of the contemporary US military is precisely orientated to plan for the ‘evental’, to anticipate a series of future events in its various ‘security zones’ – what the Pentagon terms ‘Areas of Responsibility’ or ‘AORs’ (see Figure 1).22 These AORs equate, in effect, to what Foucault calls “spaces of security”, comprising “a series of possible events” that must be securitized by inserting both “the temporal” and “the uncertain”.23 And it is through preemptive juridical securitization ‘beyond the battlefield’ that the US military anticipates and enables the necessary biopolitical modalities of power and management on the ground for any future interventionary action.


For CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus, and the other five US regional commanders across the globe, the ‘population’ of primary concern in their respective AORs is the US military personnel deployed therein. For Petraeus and his fellow commanders, US ground troops present perhaps less a collection of “juridical-political” subjects and more what Foucault calls “technical-political” objects of “management and government”.25 In effect, they are tasked with governing “spaces of security” in which “a series of uncertain elements” can unfold in what Foucault terms the “milieu”.26 What is at stake in the ‘milieu’ is “the problem of circulation and causality”, which must be anticipated and planned for in terms of “a series of possible events” that need to “be regulated within a multivalent and transformable framework”.27 And the “technical problem” posed by the eighteenth-century town planners Foucault has in mind is precisely the same technical problem of space, population and regulation that US military strategists and Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) personnel have in the twenty-first century.

For US military JAGs, their endeavours to legally securitize the AORs of their regional commanders are ultimately orientated to “fabricate, organize, and plan a milieu” even before ground troops are deployed (as in the case of the first action in the war on terror, which I return to later: the negotiation by CENTCOM JAGs of a Status of Forces Agreement with Uzbekistan in early October 2001).28 JAGs play a key role in legally conditioning the battlefield, in regulating the circulation of troops, in optimising their operational capacities, and in sanctioning the privilege to kill. The JAG’s milieu is a “field of intervention”, in other words, in which they are seeking to “affect, precisely, a population”.29 To this end, securing the aleatory or the uncertain is key. As Michael Dillon argues, central to the securing of populations are the “sciences of the aleatory or the contingent” in which the “government of population” is achieved by the sciences of “statistics and probability”.30 As he points out elsewhere, you “cannot secure anything unless you know what it is”, and therefore securitization demands that “people, territory, and things are transformed into epistemic objects.31 And in planning the milieu of US ground forces overseas, JAGs translate regional AORs into legally enabled grids upon which US military operations take place. This is part of the production of what Matt Hannah terms “mappable landscapes of expectation”;32 and to this end, the aleatory is anticipated by planning for the ‘evental’ in the promissory language of securitization.

The ontology of the ‘event’ has recently garnered wide academic engagement. Randy Martin, for example, has underlined the eventual discursive underpinnings of US military strategy in the war on terror; highlighting how the risk of future events results in ‘preemption’ being the tactic of their securitization.33 Naomi Klein has laid bare the powerful event-based logic of ‘disaster capitalism’;34 while others have pointed out how an ascendant ‘logic of premediation’, in which the future is already anticipated and “mediated”, is a marked feature of the “post-9/11 cultural landscape”.35 But it was Foucault who first cited the import of the ‘evental’ in the realm of biopolitics. He points to the “anti-scarcity system” of seventeenth-century Europe as an early exemplar of a new ‘evental’ biopolitics in which “an event that could take place” is prevented before it “becomes a reality”.36 To this end, the figure of ‘population’ becomes both an ‘object’, “on which and towards which mechanisms are directed in order to have a particular effect on it”, but also a ‘subject’, “called upon to conduct itself in such and such a fashion”.37 Echoing Foucault, David Nally usefully argues that the emergence of the “era of bio-power” was facilitated by “the ability of ‘government’ to seize, manage and control individual bodies and whole populations”.38 And this is part of Michael Dillon’s argument about the “very operational heart of the security dispositif of the biopolitics of security”, which seeks to ‘strategize’, ‘secure’, ‘regulate’ and ‘manipulate’ the “circulation of species life”.39 For the US military, it is exactly the circulation and regulation of life that is central to its tactics of lawfare to juridically secure the necessary legal geographies and biopolitics of its overseas ground presence.

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