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Obama taps Silliman for judgeship

A Duke Law professor may soon evaluate the cases of Guantanamo detainees.

Scott Silliman—professor of the practice of law at the Duke School of Law and director emeritus of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security—was nominated by President Barack Obama as an appellate judge to the United States Court of Military Commission Review Nov. 10. Silliman’s appointment is still pending approval by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The U.S. Court of Military Commission Review, instituted as part of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and amended in 2009, is an appellate court that reviews military commissions cases. It also reviews the cases’ findings and sentences for legal and factual sufficiency.

The military commission court system was designed to try terrorism suspects captured by the federal government and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, said Dick Kohn, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Although Silliman declined to comment on specific cases that may potentially come before the court, he noted the importance of the military commission review.

“The American and international communities will be closely watching what happens at Guantanamo Bay to hopefully see that the system works as Congress intended when it enacted the law three years ago and to remove any of the taint that some people feel surrounds the military commission system,” Silliman said.

Silliman went through an extensive vetting process by White House officials prior to receiving the nomination. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing in which Silliman will testify before the committee decides to confirm his nomination, though the exact date of the hearing remains unknown, Silliman noted.

William Pollard, a partner at the New York City-based law firm Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard, LLP and former assistant United States attorney in New York, was appointed to the court as well.

“[Pollard and Silliman’s] extensive experience in both military and civilian law make them uniquely qualified to both protect our national security interests and uphold our highest judicial standards,” Obama said in a White House news release Nov. 10.

Before coming to Duke, Silliman served in the Air Force for 25 years as a staff judge advocate, senior attorney for Tactical Air Command and then as a senior attorney for Air Combat Command.

“I’ve known him for more than 35 years, and I really cannot think of a better selection for this particular job,” said Charles Dunlap, visiting professor of the practice of law and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. “I admire him for wanting to take it on because it is going to be a very challenging job.”

Silliman’s professorship followed his retirement from the Air Force where he garnered practical experience with military proceedings. This experience contributes to Silliman’s expertise in the field, Dunlap noted.

“The reputation that Professor Silliman built here at Duke as one of the nation’s foremost national security scholars is certainly a factor that brought his name to the forefront,” Dunlap said.

Silliman’s reputation, integrity and experience makes him the model candidate for the position, Kohn said.

“If I needed to be defended in some court where his expertise was relevant I would call him first. I would put my life in his hands,” Kohn said. “He is truly an outstanding lawyer and human being, and his values, ethics and integrity are, in my judgment, of the highest standard.”

Kohn noted that some aspects of the military commission courts, in particular whether their procedures and processes conform to standards of international and American law, need more legitimacy. Silliman’s nomination would add to that legitimacy.

“The fact that the United States government nominated a lawyer of Scott Silliman’s outstanding record, experience, accomplishments and balanced objective viewpoints speaks well for the government’s attempt to see this process through in such a way as to gain the applause of the American and world opinion,” Kohn said.


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