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March 11, 2014 2

President’s Civil Rights Nominee Rejected For Defending Civil Rights

Last week, on March 5, a major­ity of Sen­a­tors voted to block the nom­i­na­tion of Debo Adeg­bile, Pres­i­dent Obama’s choice to be the next Assis­tant Attor­ney Gen­eral for Civil Rights – replac­ing Tom Perez, now Sec­re­tary of Labor. The vote to refuse to con­firm Adeg­bile was 47–52 (with Major­ity Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) cast­ing a “no” vote in order to pre­serve the pos­si­bil­ity of bring­ing the nom­i­na­tion to the floor again).debo-adegbile

Adegbile’s nom­i­na­tion had attracted con­sid­er­able sup­port – includ­ing the Amer­i­can Bar Asso­ci­a­tion and a num­ber of lead­ing con­ser­v­a­tive advo­cates who had been on the other side of legal argu­ments with Adeg­bile in the past. The Anti-Defamation League was among 86 national civil rights, reli­gious, and law enforce­ment orga­ni­za­tions that had endorsed his nom­i­na­tion in a let­ter to Sen­a­tors

Adeg­bile was not defeated because he was unqual­i­fied for the post. To the con­trary, Adeg­bile, a vot­ing rights expert who had argued two cases before the United States Supreme Court, is one of the pre-eminent civil rights lit­i­ga­tors of his gen­er­a­tion. He had served as Direc­tor of Lit­i­ga­tion and, later, as Act­ing Pres­i­dent and Director-Counsel of the sto­ried civil rights orga­ni­za­tion, the NAACP Legal Defense and Edu­ca­tion Fund (LDF). 

Instead, oppo­si­tion to Adeg­bile was focused, almost exclu­sively, on the fact that the LDF became coun­sel for Mumia Abu-Jamal dur­ing his tenure. Abu-Jamal was con­victed of killing Philadel­phia police offi­cer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Far from “seek­ing to glo­rify an unre­pen­tant cop-killer,” as Sen­ate Minor­ity Leader Mitch McConnell wrongly asserted, LDF lawyers had not argued that Abu-Jamal was inno­cent or wrongly con­victed. They argued, in post-conviction appeal pro­ceed­ings, that his death sen­tence had been tainted by jury instruc­tions that were flawed and improper – an argu­ment that pre­vailed in the courts.  Adeg­bile was involved in the case tan­gen­tially, in a super­vi­sory capacity.

As the con­tro­versy over Adegbile’s LDF involve­ment in the Abu-Jamal appeal grew, the Pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Bar Asso­ci­a­tion felt it nec­es­sary to write to Sen­a­tors to remind them how the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in Amer­ica is sup­posed to work: 

I was alarmed to learn that there is some oppo­si­tion to Mr. Adegbile’s nom­i­na­tion based solely on his efforts to pro­tect the fun­da­men­tal rights of an unpop­u­lar client while work­ing at the Legal Defense Fund. His work, like the work of ABA mem­bers who pro­vide thou­sands of hours of pro bono legal ser­vices every year, is con­sis­tent with the finest tra­di­tion of this country’s legal pro­fes­sion and should be com­mended, not condemned.

Fol­low­ing his defeat, many com­men­ta­tors have rightly labeled the Senate’s treat­ment of Adeg­bile unfair, con­trast­ing his involve­ment in rep­re­sent­ing a highly unpop­u­lar defen­dant with sim­i­lar legal rep­re­sen­ta­tion by for­mer Pres­i­dent John Adams and Chief Jus­tice John Roberts – who both, famously, rep­re­sented indi­vid­u­als charged with mur­der.  In 1770, John Adams rep­re­sented British sol­diers indicted for mur­der­ing five peo­ple in what would later be called the “Boston Mas­sacre” dur­ing British occu­pa­tion of the colonies. Six of the sol­diers on trial, includ­ing their com­mand­ing offi­cer, were acquit­ted of the charges, and two oth­ers were con­victed on manslaugh­ter.   And when he was in pri­vate prac­tice, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Jus­tice John Roberts rep­re­sented a Florida death-row inmate who, with two co-defendants, had been con­victed of killing eight peo­ple in 1978. 

The defeat of Debo Adegbile’s nom­i­na­tion sends a deeply dis­turb­ing mes­sage to lawyers who might now think twice before affil­i­at­ing with advo­cacy groups or serv­ing jus­tice by rep­re­sent­ing con­tro­ver­sial fig­ures or causes.

  • Phillip­Na­gle

    The ADL should be ashamed of itself for this very one sided story. Adeg­bile not only acted Abu-Jamal’s lawyer, he also acted as his spokesman. He pro­pa­gan­dized for this vicious mur­der and the Sen­ate was right to reject him.

    • IraShep­ard

      Amen!