The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to advance the nomination of Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s pick to run the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Adegbile’s nomination will now head to the Senate floor.
Republicans voted unanimously against him. Calling Adegbile a “fighter for a political agenda” with “questionable judgment,” Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch voted by proxy against Adegbile on behalf of his Republican colleagues, who were not present because of ongoing political wrangling over unemployment benefits on the Senate floor.
Conservative opposition to Adegbile has centered around his role as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. As an attorney for the civil rights group, Adegbile has litigated cases defending longtime civil rights laws some Republicans see as unnecessary or as federal government overreach. But it was the NAACP LDF’s successful effort to commute the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black radical convicted of killing white police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1982, that has Republicans most incensed. The NAACP LDF represented Abu-Jamal in 2011, urging the Supreme Court not to overturn the 2001 federal court decision that vacated his death sentence.
“As Chief Justice Roberts said, it’s a tradition in American politics that goes back before the founding of the country that lawyers are not identified with the position of their clients,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said Thursday, pointing to the fact that America’s second president, John Adams, had defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. “It’s not about overturning the law, it’s about vindicating the rule of law.”
During the George W. Bush administration, enforcement of civil rights laws declined, according to a Government Accountability Office report, and a 2008 DOJ inspector general report found that a Bush appointee had violated civil service laws in an attempt to purge liberals from the civil rights division. Since then, Republicans have tried to substantiate similar accusations of politicization at the Obama administration.
Leahy’s Republican counterpart, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, was not present for the vote. In a statement prepared for the record, Grassley said he couldn’t support a nominee who had defended “this country’s most notorious cop-killer.”
With the filibuster over presidential nominees gone, Republicans will have trouble blocking Adegbile’s appointment unless they can persuade Democrats to defect.
Correction: This item originally stated that Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was commuted in 2011. It was originally commuted in 2001.