Monday, April 07, 2008

The banality of legal academic evils

I'm reading a fair amount of chatter in the legal blogosphere over John Yoo's recently-released legal memo from March 14, 2002 that started the government's infatuation with torture. This post suggests he didn't have the authority to issue the memo that was accepted as the final word over military interrogations. Elsewhere I've read that Yoo issued the memo the day after his supervisor, Jay Bybee (no angel either), had left office. Now people are debating whether Yoo should be removed from his office as a tenured law professor at UC Berkeley.

To be fair I haven't read his memo, but I've read about it. What it reminds me of is my one time where I felt my legal work was entering some sticky ethical ground on a very much smaller scale - a client involved in a larger matter wanted to know if it had the legal authority to do something I considered unethical. The way I handled it was to exhaustively research and document all the ways things could go badly for my client if they took that approach. The law wouldn't allow me to say "no you can't," but there was room in the law to make the approach look unattractive.

Yoo seems to have taken the opposite approach. He wanted to see how far he could push it in terms of what colorable arguments could justify the worst possible torture. A "colorable" argument in legal terms means anything short of frivolous - an argument that is almost but not 100% certainly wrong is "colorable". Then he uses whatever possible tricks to "publish" his view within the government. It's all an academic exercise, I suppose. Maybe that would make him a good teacher in some people's minds, but this is no thought experiment, and he doesn't deserve to be rewarded.

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