The question has come up a lot lately, particularly since oral arguments last week in Jose Padilla's lawsuit against John Yoo made clear that the federal judge was taking the case very seriously. After all, it was a bit odd to see Barack Obama's Justice Department defending Yoo -- who Padilla's lawyers claim is responsible for their client being tortured in U.S. custody -- and urging the court to dismiss the case.

When the Center for Independent Media's own Ed Brayton put the question to me on his radio show last week, I had to admit I wasn't really sure of the answer. Like many people, I assumed that the government was required to defend a former employee being called to account for something he did while in government office. But does the DOJ always have to defend government employees, or are there limits? If that former employee has broken -- or at the very least twisted -- the law, can the Justice Department refuse?

I asked Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller yesterday, who responded by sending me a lengthy excerpt from the relevant section of the Code of Federal Regulations. (I'll spare you the seven pages of fine print.) The quick answer is, according to 28 C.F.R. § 50.15, a former federal employee "may be provided representation in civil, criminal and Congressional proceedings in which he is sued, subpoenaed, or charged in his individual capacity . . . when the actions for which representation is requested reasonably appear to have been performed within the scope of the employee's employment and the Attorney General or his designee determines that providing representation would otherwise be in the interest of the United States."