A Powerful Advocate for the President: The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel
Political Science Departmental Honors Thesis: “To what extent has the politicization of the presidency affected the operations of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel?” (June 2015 – June 2016)
Abstract: This study examines legal opinions and corresponding documents from the United States Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) between 1981 and 2013 to discover the extent to which the office’s operations have been affected by the politicization of the presidency. Political science research has focused little attention on this influential office in the context of presidential politicization and centralization. After analyzing archives from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, as well as records from the OLC, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Congressional Record, it became evident that the OLC may be shifting toward presidential advocacy rather than neutrality. If the OLC is an advocate for the president, multiple politicization indicators would be validated: (1) an increase over time in the number of politically appointed Deputy Assistant Attorneys General; (2) an increase in OLC opinions at the end of an administration’s tenure; (3) the negative treatment rate (opinions that overrule and/or modify prior legal interpretations) would increase over time; (4) pro-president language such as “executive power,” “executive privilege,” and “unilateral” would be routine across published opinions, and the OLC would rarely limit White House requests; (5) controversial legal opinions discussed in the media would oftentimes not be published on the OLC website; (6) Congress would greatly scrutinize the OLC when the government is divided; (7) the content of the opinions chosen for publication would be a function of the partisan orientation of the president. The study validated six of the seven politicization indicators, leading to the conclusion that the politicization of the presidency has affected OLC’s operations.
Read the Full Study