On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon handed the tobacco industry a big victory by blocking a new federal requirement that cigarette packs carry graphic warning labels. Though the ruling may mean illness and premature death for many Americans, it wouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone who knew Leon's history as a partisan activist.
Leon was appointed to his lifetime judicial post by George W. Bush in 2002 after Leon had "earned" the gratitude of the Bush Family by protecting its interests as an aggressive and reliable Republican legal apparatchik on Capitol Hill. There, the heavy-set Leon gained a reputation as a partisan bully who made sure politically charged investigations reached a desired outcome, whatever the facts.
In the 1990s, Leon served as special counsel to the House Banking Committee as it transformed President Bill Clinton's minor Whitewater real estate deal into a major scandal that eventually led to the House vote to impeach Clinton in 1998 and thus set the stage for Bush's disputed election victory in 2000.
However, Leon's most important work for the Bushes may have come in the 1980s and early 1990s when he helped construct legal justifications for Republican law-breaking and sought to intimidate Iran-Contra-related witnesses who came forward to expose GOP wrongdoing.
In 1987, when Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyoming, was leading the Republican counter offensive against the Iran-Contra investigation into evidence that President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush had engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy involving illegal weapons shipments and money transfers, Leon stepped forward as deputy chief counsel on the Republican side.
Leon worked with Cheney not only in fending off accusations of wrongdoing, but in coming up with a counter-argument that accused Congress of intruding on foreign policy prerogatives of the President.
"Congressional actions to limit the President in this area ... should be reviewed with a considerable degree of skepticism," the Republican minority report said. "If they interfere with the core presidential foreign policy functions, they should be struck down."
In 2005 as vice president, Cheney harkened back to that Iran-Contra minority report in defending George W. Bush's assertion of unlimited presidential powers during wartime.
"If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra committee," Cheney told a reporter. Cheney said those old arguments "are very good in laying out a robust view of the president's prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters."
So, one could say that Richard Leon was there at the birth of what became George W. Bush's imperial presidency.
Cover-up of Crimes
But Leon's crucial work went beyond building a legal framework for Republican presidents to ignore the law. More significantly, he conducted cover-ups of their crimes.
In 1992, when a House task force was examining evidence that Reagan and Bush began their secret contacts with Iran in 1980 while trying to unseat President Jimmy Carter, Leon was the Republican point man to make sure nothing too damaging came out. Leon served as chief minority counsel to the House task force investigating the so-called October Surprise allegations.
At the time, evidence was mounting that Reagan and the senior Bush had interfered with President Carter's efforts to gain the release of 52 U.S. hostages held by Islamic radicals in Iran, a crisis that helped doom his reelection in 1980.
From the start of the congressional inquiry, however, the goal seemed more to debunk the allegations of Republican wrongdoing than to seriously assess the evidence. At one point, I went to the task force's office and questioned chief majority counsel Lawrence Barcella and his assistant, Michael Zeldin, about this peculiar style of investigating.
Barcella and Zeldin pointed to Leon's insistence that interviews with witnesses be conducted only with him or another Republican present. This stricture had sharply limited the task force's ability to follow leads and develop new witnesses.