Sen. Tammy Duckworth: Reject Trump's judicial nominee for his "complicity in torture"

The senator from Illinois calls on her colleagues to refuse to confirm Howard Nielson as a federal judge

By Sen. Tammy Duckworth
Published February 18, 2018 8:00AM (EST)
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) (Getty/Scott Olson)
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) (Getty/Scott Olson)

Torture is wrong.

Cruel and unusual punishment betrays our values, undermines the rule of law and violates the United States Constitution.

Those who champion torture and those who equivocate in the face of pressure to justify such abuses fail to uphold the oath they took when they entered public service.

Last November, I was deeply disappointed when a slim majority of Senate Republicans overrode bipartisan objections to confirm Steven Bradbury — the author of the infamous Bush Administration torture memos — to serve in a senior Trump Administration role. This was a step backwards in our nation’s effort to shut the door on that shameful period in recent history.

Making matters worse, the Senate is now on the verge of voting to confirm Howard Nielson — a man who worked alongside Mr. Bradbury on the torture memos — to a lifetime appointment as a federal judge, despite his unapologetic defense of torture and those who sanctioned it.

I voted against confirming Mr. Bradbury and strongly oppose the nomination of Mr. Nielson on the principle that supporting torture is not only un-American, it also disqualifies one from public service in this country. Serving in the United States Government is an honor and a privilege, not a right.

This is especially true for appointments to the Federal Judiciary that require Senate confirmation and come with lifetime tenure, like the position Mr. Nielson finds himself in consideration for. Mr. Nielson forfeited his privilege to serve in this role when he sought to legally justify cruel and unusual punishments that not only violated the law but betrayed our country’s values.

When confronted with policies that represented unlawful and potentially unconstitutional violations of prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, Mr. Nielson not only failed to act decisively to blow the whistle on such abhorrent practices, but he actually played an active and significant role in defending the indefensible.

For example, as a deputy assistant attorney general, Mr. Nielson authored a 2005 Office of Legal Counsel memorandum that dubiously argued U.S. personnel could torture civilians and comply with the Geneva Conventions, so long as the torture was conducted outside of United States territory. His sanctioning of torture practices endangered our troops and diplomats serving abroad, who lost the power inherent in representing a country that was clear in its conviction that it does not torture.

Complicity in torture should have disqualified Mr. Nielson from serving at the time, but it absolutely must disqualify him from returning to government service. This is especially true for a judicial appointment, where he would be entrusted with upholding the law and defending the United States Constitution over a lifelong term.

Whether Mr. Nielson advocated for, or simply attempted to justify, torture should make no difference when it comes to evaluating whether the United States Senate should consent to a lifetime judicial appointment. Our nation must always speak clearly and unequivocally that torture is wrong.

We must be strong in our conviction that the United States will not torture, period. Civil servants and political appointees should never again blur the lines on torture, asserting that actions such as waterboarding may be legal, depending on the duration of the simulated drowning, or who we are subjecting to such cruel and unusual punishment.

The United States Senate would advance this important value by rejecting the nomination of Howard Nielson to be a United States District Judge. I hope that all my colleagues join me in sending a clear message that those who refuse to condemn torture are unfit to serve in the United States Government.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth is a Democrat and combat veteran elected to the Senate in 2016 after representing Illinois’s Eighth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms.

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