U.S. Department of Justice
U.S. Department of Justice (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ NLJ)

Karl Thompson, counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., was named on Monday as the new acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Thompson, a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, replaces acting head Caroline Krass, who was confirmed by the Senate earlier this month to serve as general counsel to the Central Intelligence Agency. Virginia Seitz was head of the OLC until late last year. Thompson will also have the title of principal deputy assistant attorney general.

“During his five years with the department, Karl has distinguished himself as a lawyer of unparalleled intellect and integrity. His guidance has helped the department navigate some of the toughest legal challenges of this administration,” Holder said in a written statement. “I’m grateful that he has agreed to lead the Office of Legal Counsel and look forward to continuing to rely on his superb judgment as he assumes this new role.”

The OLC provides legal advice to the executive branch on a range of issues. Opinions have addressed issues that include government surveillance, interrogation tactics and executive privilege. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in January said OLC can keep secret a memo about the FBI collection of phone records.

Thompson joined the Justice Department in 2009, working at the OLC and in other positions in Holder’s office. He came to the department from O’Melveny & Myers, where, among other things, he helped represent a Guantánamo Bay detainee on a pro bono basis. Because of that representation, he and eight other top Justice Department lawyers were criticized by conservative groups in 2010.

O’Melveny partner Walter Dellinger, himself a former head of OLC, defended Thompson in a Washington Post column, asserting that Thompson’s work for the detainee was “not only part of a lawyer’s professional obligation but a small act of patriotism as well.”

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com. On Twitter: @Tonymauro.