Will "Justifying Torture" Be On The Final Exam? St. Thomas's New Law School Hire

The University of St. Thomas School of Law aspires to provide an ethical, as well as practical, legal education to its 340 students. The school's mission statement declares that it "is dedicated to integrating faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice."

Given that stated goal, it may be difficult to comprehend the June appointment of Robert Delahunty. Delahunty previously served in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. In that capacity he coauthored one of the now notorious "torture memos" that seemingly justified the psychological and physical abuse of detainees in the war on terrorism.

The draft memo, dated January 9, 2002 and coauthored by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo (a Berkeley professor), argues that the United States does not have to comply with international laws in its handling of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who are not affiliated with a recognized country. "As a result," the memo reads, "any customary international law of armed conflict in no way binds, as a legal matter, the president or the U.S. Armed Forces concerning the detention or trial of members of al Qaeda and the Taliban." (Read the whole memo at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5025040/site/newsweek.)

Yoo and Delahunty's interpretation means that the United States is free to ignore the international Geneva Conventions governing the conduct of war, which explicitly prohibit the torture of prisoners. This and other legal theories put forth by the Office of Legal Counsel have been widely criticized as paving the way for the prisoner abuses that took place in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

"These memos read as advising how close one can skirt to the law and still not be guilty," says Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of Minneapolis's Center for Victims of Torture. "They're what we expect to read out of an Enron memo or a mob-lawyer memo, but not advice to the president of the United States."

Johnson says that news of Delahunty's hiring has been circulating among local lawyers and human rights activists for a couple of weeks. "I was shocked," he says. "St. Thomas has tried to distinguish itself as a law school and as a university that really teaches values and ethics, and this seems to fly in the face of that."

Neil Hamilton, associate dean for academic affairs, notes that the school hired Delahunty in December of 2003 and was unaware of the controversial memo. Nonetheless, Hamilton says, "I still strongly support Robert being on the faculty."

Contacted at his office on Monday, Delahunty confirms that the Justice Department document didn't come up during the hiring process. And he states that he's prohibited from discussing the issue. "I really can't talk about that because of client privileges," he says. "Not in any way."

Delahunty does say that he was attracted to St. Thomas because of its religiously grounded teachings. "I'm in profound sympathy with their mission," he notes. "I'm a Christian believer and I do think that Christian life should be integrated with law for those of us who are lawyers."

 
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