On Wednesday, we saw a twist in Senate Republicans’ efforts to block presidential nominees from federal posts. This time, the blockade was made possible not just by Republicans, but by seven Democrats as well.
They voted against the nomination of Debo Adegbile to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which is, of course, responsible for ensuring fair access to the ballot. They voted “no” despite Adegbile’s credentials as a preeminent civil rights attorney, one who took the defense of the Voting Rights Act all the way to the Supreme Court last year.
And my letter today is to one of those U.S. Senators: Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
Dear Senator Heitkamp,
It is me, Ari.
Here is how you explained your vote:
“I was very concerned about a nominee who would face such staunch opposition from law enforcement officers from day one.”
That opposition, as we reported, is based on Adegbile’s role as an attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, where he worked on the appeal of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted in 1982 of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, [Daniel Faulkner].
As the National Association of Police Organizations said:
“Here we have a nominee who’s made his name defending one of the most notorious and unrepentant cop killers around.”
Many police officers and their families sincerely oppose anyone who had anything to do with Abu-Jamal’s defense, and that’s their choice. That is their right. But for you, senator, to say that the act of providing counsel to someone accused of a crime disqualifies a lawyer from public service. That is an outrageous precedent. And as a former state attorney general, you, senator, should know better.
In fact, had that standard existed in 2005, it would have pre-empted the confirmation of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. He once consulted on the death penalty appeal of a man convicted of murdering eight people. Or it would have disqualified the hundreds of great, qualified, honest, American, patriotic attorneys who have worked on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
It would have disqualified one of our country’s founding fathers, John Adams, who said his defense of the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre – our enemies at the time – was “one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life.”
But, senator, you here are sending a dangerous message to our nation’s lawyers, and law students and future lawyers: don’t stand up for the constitutional right to counsel. Don’t work on these cases if someone says they’re controversial. Don’t help a poor defendant appeal a death sentence.
You’re encouraging a choice between upholding our Constitution and serving in government itself, when it is precisely the people who have taken hard cases to defend our Constitution that belong in government. But opposition to Adegbile’s nomination also runs deeper than his defense of Abu-Jamal. For some, it was about his work and LDF’s work against voting restrictions, like voter-ID and the elimination of early voting.
If you drill down into the attacks, you find things like this:
“Adegbile hails from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, an organization that has pushed a radical racial agenda including attacks on election integrity measures.”
Senator Heitkamp, you recommended the president nominate someone not so controversial. But here’s the thing: anyone who has a record of fighting hard against those voting restrictions will be “controversial” in the eyes of those who seek to impose those restrictions. And now you risk looking like you fell for a smear campaign that worked against the very values you claim to stand for – indeed, they’re the ones that on the very same day you championed in a fundraising email, saying you would work to protect “every American’s right to vote.”
President Obama called the vote a “travesty.” And if this is the precedent you want to set – that no one who’s defended “controversial” clients can serve the public – then it’s a travesty for all of us.