Born in Manhasset, New York in August 1961, Dawn Elizabeth Johnsen earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science at Yale College in 1983. Three years later, she earned a J.D. at Yale Law School. After completing her higher education, Johnsen clerked for U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Dickson from September 1986 until August 1987. She then served as a staff counsel fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union from 1987-1988, and worked for the National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League (now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America) from 1988-1993. Next, President Bill Clinton named Johnsen as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General from 1993-1996, and as an Acting Assistant Attorney General heading the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) from 1997-1998. In 1998 Johnsen left her government post and joined the faculty at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. Today she is a national board member of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.
Johnsen filed an amicus brief in the 1989 Supreme Court case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which centered around a Missouri law that did not ban abortions but restricted the use of state funds to finance them. Johnsen asserted that by means of this restriction, the state was “conscript[ing]” women’s bodies “for its own ends,” and was relegating many women to a state of “forced pregnancy” and “involuntary servitude” where they were compelled “to provide continuous physical service to the fetus in order to further the state’s asserted interest [in the life of the unborn].” According to Johnsen, any and all restrictions on abortion, however slight, had the effect of “reduc[ing] pregnant women to no more than fetal containers.” “The argument that women who become pregnant have in some sense consented to the pregnancy belies reality,” added Johnsen. “… [A]nd others who are the inevitable losers in the contraceptive lottery no more ‘consent’ to pregnancy than pedestrians ‘consent’ to being struck by drunk drivers.”
Johnsen authored another amicus brief in the 1993 Supreme Court case Bray v. Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic, where she stated: “The ‘terrorist’ behavior of [anti-abortion] petitioners is remarkably similar to the conspiracy of violence and intimidation carried out by the Ku Klux Klan.”
Throughout her legal career, Johnsen has consistently opposed any regulations that would infringe upon a woman’s right to undergo a taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand at any stage of pregnancy, for any reason whatsoever. For example, she opposes 24-hour waiting periods before abortions can be performed; she rejects parental-consent requirements for minors; and she rejects laws against the procedure commonly known as partial-birth abortion.
In a 2006 op-ed piece opposing Samuel Alito’s confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice, Johnsen declared that no judicial nominee should be eligible to serve on the federal bench unless he or she abjured any and all restrictions on access to abortion. “The notion of legal restrictions as some kind of reasonable ‘compromise’ — perhaps to help make abortion ‘safe, legal, and rare,’” she wrote, “proves nonsensical.”
“Progressives must not portray all abortions as tragedies … Senator Hillary Clinton, in a 2005 speech commendable for setting forth a pro-choice, pro-prevention, pro-family agenda, took the aspiration a step in the wrong direction when she called for policy changes so that abortion ‘does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances.’”
Johnsen views the United States generally as a nation rife with all manner of injustice, including racial discrimination against nonwhites. In an April 2008 article which she penned for Slate, Johnsen lamented that “the U.S. incarcerates more of its people — and for longer periods — than any other nation, bar none.” Most disturbing, she said, was “the devastatingly disproportionate rates of imprisonment of racial minorities.” This inequity, she explained, was in large measure a result of “how we treat drugs: the crack/cocaine disparity and beyond that, the fact that African Americans face disproportionately higher rates of arrest, prosecution, and conviction and disproportionately longer sentences.” “And those disparities,” Johnsen added, “… translate to amazingly high rates of African Americans who subsequently are prohibited from voting, unable to find jobs, ineligible for student loans … the ramifications go on and on and on.”
Johnsen also has been outspoken on the issue of America’s national security. In a 2008 article titled “What’s a President to Do? — Interpreting the Constitution in the Wake of Bush Administration Abuses,” she characterized the War on Terror as an ill-advised brainstorm that President Bush had undertaken impetuously as an overreaction to a single act of terrorism (9/11), rather than as a long-overdue response to years of jihadist provocations (including such incidents as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole). Johnsen derided as “extreme and implausible” the Bush administration’s claim that it was justified in conducting warrantless surveillance of suspected al Qaeda communications into and out of the United States — a practice that had been strongly supported by federal court precedent.
Johnsen further impugned the “irresponsibly and dangerously false” scholarship of UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who, as a Bush OLC staffer, was the lead author of the Justice Department’s so-called “torture memo” that attempted to arrive at an operational and statutory definition of the term “torture.” As National Review Online editor Andrew McCarthy points out, Johnsen condemned the Bush administration for having used the technique of waterboarding to interrogate some high-level al Qaeda detainees, “blithely presuming its illegality despite the complex questions surrounding that claim.” “Indifferent to the fact that our enemies train to resist known interrogation methods,” adds McCarthy, “Johnsen wants all tactics spelled out explicitly in advance.”
Following his victory in the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama named Johnsen as his choice for Assistant Attorney General to the Office of Legal Counsel. Shortly thereafter, Johnsen stated that Justice Department job applicants whom the Bush administration previously had rejected because of their leftist political views should now receive “special consideration” in the Obama Justice Department’s hiring standards.
Moreover, Johnsen opined that nominees for the federal judiciary should automatically be disqualified from consideration if they subscribe to the concept of Constitutional originalism (as opposed to the notion that the Constitution is a malleable “living document”), or if they belong to the judicially conservative Federalist Society.
Johnsen further announced her intent to exhort the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resource Division to “pursue innovative litigation and policy initiatives, such as the pressing issue of climate change.”
Though the OLC post is, by definition, apolitical, Johnsen openly asserts her support for “the progressive agenda” of “universal health care, public funding for childcare, paid family leave, and … the full range of economic justice issues, from the minimum wage to taxation policy to financial support for struggling families.”
On January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden swore Johnsen into office as the Acting Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, pending nomination of a Senate-confirmed candidate for the full-time role.
On July 30, 2021, Johnson wrote a letter ordering the U.S. Treasury to deliver former President Donald Trump’s tax returns to Congress. Wrote Johnsen: “The statute at issue here is unambiguous: ‘Upon written request’ of the chairman of one of the three congressional tax committees, the Secretary ‘shall furnish’ the requested tax information to the Committee. Applying the proper degree of deference due the Committee, we believe that there is ample basis to conclude that its June 2021 Request for former President Trump’s tax information would further the Committee’s principal stated objective of assessing the IRS’s presidential audit program—a plainly legitimate area for congressional inquiry and possible legislation.” As the Daily Caller noted: “The Ways and Means Committee originally requested Trump’s returns in mid-June. Democrats in Congress have long tried to obtain Trump’s tax returns by force, subpoenaing Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, and his IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, to deliver the returns to Congress in 2019. Mnuchin held up the process, however, and Trump’s DOJ at the time released a memo arguing that ‘the Constitution requires the Committee to demonstrate a legitimate legislative purpose,’” according to The Hill.