I attended a debate on presidential power at Chapman University Law School yesterday.
In retrospect, the event should more properly have been called “The Trial of John Yoo.”
And strikingly, it was Yoo who cast himself in the role of defendant.
The debate was titled "Presidential Power and Success in Times of Crisis," and the debaters included John Eastman, Dean of Chapman’s law school and one of the nation’s smartest (and therefore most dangerous) conservative legal scholars, as well as progressive Chapman law professors Katherine Darmer and Larry Rosenthal.
The first speaker and featured star attraction was John Yoo, currently Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley and Fletcher Jones Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Chapman, and the former Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush who co-authored the now-infamous memos justifying waterboarding and other forms of torture.
For those of us expecting a high power constitutional firefight over Bush era torture and presidential power, the debate was a letdown.
In fact, only one side – Darmer and Rosenthal – really addressed the scope of presidential power in the war on terror or the legal and ethical issues involved in the Bush administration’s torture program.
The other side – Yoo and Eastman – focused instead on the legal and ethical charges – only vaguely alluded to in the debate, but prominent in the media – against John Yoo himself.
Yoo’s self-defense consisted of unsubstantiated claims that torture (or what he called “enhanced interrogation”) was necessary to prevent a repeat of a 9-11 terrorist attack against the U.S., and strained analogies to prior unilateral presidential actions during wartime (such as Lincoln’s attempt to suspend habeas corpus during the civil war).
Most significantly, Yoo argued that President Bush -- and, by clear implication, Yoo himself -- should not be legally or morally judged in Obama era hindsight. Rather, Yoo claimed, the legal and moral judgment of the Bush administration's policy on torture must take into consideration the legitimate fear of terrorism that gripped the nation immediately following the 9-11 attacks.
Professor Rosenthal aptly called this argument the “I lost my head” defense.
What I want to note is that John Yoo knows that he is already on trial – not just in Spain, but here in the United States – and he is already attempting to put on his defense.
And if his performance at Chapman is an indication of his skill as his own defense attorney – and I think that it is – John Yoo is in serious trouble.
Yoo was meandering, inarticulate, and alternately simplistic and condescending. He was no match for Darmer and Rosenthal – both former federal prosecutors and both clearly far smarter and more savvy than John Yoo.
I came away from the debate feeling that Yoo is a rather pathetic figure, intellectually out-classed by the others on the panel.
Yoo’s rise in the legal world of the Bush administration was obviously more a product of his political beliefs and ultra-conservative connections – he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Thomas’ friend and mentor Judge Laurence Silberman – than of his legal skill.
Yoo was probably not really even the primary author of the torture memos – that dubious distinction most likely belongs to his boss at the Office of Legal Counsel, former assistant attorney general and now federal appellate judge Jay Bybee.
And if John Eastman’s tepid and uncharacteristically dim performance as co-counsel for Yoo’s defense is an indication, Yoo may just end up as the designated fall guy for public outrage over Bush’s torture program.
At the debate, one sensed that John Yoo knew that he was the going to take the fall and that there was little, if anything, that he could do about it.