Debo Adegbile testifies during his confirmation hearing, January 8, 2014.
Alex Wong/Getty

The Republican war on civil rights laws

Updated

Before Senate Republicans frightened a handful of Democrats into helping them shoot down Debo Adegbile’s nomination to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, the chamber ran so loudly with the words “cop-killer” that you might have thought Ice-T was addressing the Senate

As director of litigation with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile had presided over a team representing Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1981 of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Though Adegbile was a child when Faulkner was killed, the NAACP LDF represented Abu-Jamal during his post-conviction appeal proceedings in the late 2000s, and federal courts ultimately concluded that sentencing instructions were improper, which spared Abu-Jamal the death penalty. 

To hear Republicans talk, Adegbile practically led the movement of “Free Mumia” supporters who became convinced that Abu-Jamal had been framed, instead of the LDF simply ensuring a reviled defendant received his constitutional right to due process.

Yet Adegbile’s failed nomination wasn’t really just about Abu-Jamal, but a larger conservative attack on the civil rights division – the part of the Justice Department dedicated to enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws. Convinced that anti-black racism is a thing of the past and that federal intervention to secure minority rights does more harm than good, conservatives have waged a years long campaign to dominate, dismantle or discredit the civil rights division and the laws it is designed to enforce.

Adegbile is a celebrated Supreme Court litigator who has devoted his life to protecting laws conservatives want to see repealed, overturned or interpreted so narrowly as to be toothless, and that was reason enough for Republicans to oppose him. But absent the spectre of a revival of Willie Horton-style race baiting politics, it would not have been sufficient to bring skittish Democrats along for the ride. 

Republicans don’t just oppose Adegbile. They oppose the civil rights division itself. That’s a tremendous irony given that it was first established under a Republican president – over the opposition of many Southern Democrats. 

Yet recently when a president of their own party has been in charge of the division, Republicans have sought to purge it of civil rights lawyers perceived as too liberal. Failing that, they’ve simply declined to zealously enforce civil rights laws. During the Obama administration, Republicans have painted the division as racist against white people, and came to the defense of predatory financial industry practices that helped drive the American economy to the brink of destruction.

Where they have been unable to hamper the civil rights division’s enforcement of civil rights laws, they have turned to the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to neuter the division by gutting the laws themselves

During the George W. Bush administration, an internal Justice Department report found Bush appointees had attempted to purge the division of liberals, or as one Bush appointee Bradley Schlozman put it, “adherents of Mao’s little red book.” The report found that Schlozman, who had vowed to “gerrymander” all those “crazy libs” out of the division, replacing them with Republican loyalists, had violated civil service laws with his hiring practices. His colleagues saw it differently – the Voting Section chief at the time, John Tanner, complained that before Bush, one had to be a “civil rights person” to get hired in the division. Imagine. 

Shortly after Obama took office, conservatives seized on a now-discredited conspiracy theory that the new administration had sought to protect the New Black Panther Party. They argued thatIf you are white,” in the words of Bush-era Justice Department official Hans von Spakovsky, “the Division won’t lift a finger to make sure you’re ‘protected.’” 

Republicans held up the confirmation of Thomas Perez to head the division for more than six months. After Perez was confirmed, Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley attacked him for depoliticizing the hiring process in the division by putting it back in the hands of career attorneys, complaining that it resulted in too many civil rights lawyers being hired to work in the civil rights division, and not enough conservatives. 

Having embraced the concept of disparate impact when it came to hiring qualified attorneys in the civil rights division, Grassley nevertheless called it a “dubious legal theory” when, as head of the division, Perez used the Fair Housing Act to extract record financial settlements from lending institutions the division said had discriminated against minority borrowers and homeowners. Much to conservatives’ disappointment, they’ve so far failed to get the Supreme Court to curtail the division’s ability to go after financial practices that disproportionately harm minorities. But it may only be a matter of time before the Fair Housing Act goes the way of the Voting Rights Act

The Abu-Jamal case was merely a convenient foil for conservatives who have long sought to weaken the division and the laws it helps enforce. The story of a black radical murdering a white cop has tremendous emotional and symbolic resonance for those conservatives who have persuaded themselves that the real victims of racial oppression in the Obama era are white people, besieged by a federal government that seeks to unfairly stack the deck in favor of undeserving minorities. Whenever the Obama administration has sought to stand up for voting rights, fight discrimination in hiring, housing or schooling, the right has attacked it as racist. 

In a replay of the kind of racialized “tough on crime” politics that dominated the 1990s, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Adegbile of seeking to “glorify an unrepentant cop-killer.” Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz declared that ”Under Adegbile’s supervision, rallies, protests, and media campaigns instead dishonestly portrayed Abu-Jamal as a political prisoner and victim of racial injustice.” Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey called Adegbile ”one of the lawyers who helped to promote that campaign.” In conservative media, the campaign was even more explicit, with conservatives attacking Adegbile as “racist” and placing his face alongside that of Abu-Jamal, as if Adegbile himself were an accomplice to Faulkner’s murder.  

Though Republicans accused Adegbile of taking up Mumia’s “cause,” their evidence that Adegbile fought for anything other than the integrity of the legal system is dubious. They cited an LDF attorney who said at a pro-Mumia rally that “the justice system has completely and utterly failed Mumia Abu-Jamal and in our view that has everything to do with race and that is why the Legal Defense Fund is in this case,” and they quoted an LDF press release from 2011 stating that “Abu-Jamal’s conviction and death sentence are relics of a time and place that was notorious for police abuse and racial discrimination.” 

There’s no need to believe Abu-jamal was innocent or was unfairly prosecuted to acknowledge the context of that statement. The history of the criminal justice system in America is rife with racism and abuse. But even here Philadelphia stands out.

This is a place where Frank Rizzo, the former Philadelphia police commissioner turned mayor, told residents to “vote white” when seeking a third term in 1978. In 1977, the Philadelphia Inquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on “a police interrogation system in which suspects were handcuffed to metal chairs and beaten with lead pipes, blackjacks, brass knuckles and chair and table legs.” The Inquirer won another in 1985 for an expose on police dogs attacking hundreds of suspects. In 1979, the Justice Department attemped to sue the city’s police department over “widespread and severe” police brutality. In 1985, the Philadelphia police literally dropped bombs on a compound where black radicals were living, leading to a conflagration that destroyed more than sixty homes.

This is the context of the LDF’s statement that Abu-Jamal’s conviction took place at a time and place “notorious for police abuse and racial discrimination.” It’s a statement that, in context, is not merely uncontroversial. It is banal. 

Even if Adegbile had been more directly involved in Abu-Jamal’s defense, that alone would not have been reason to disqualify him. The legal system cannot provide justice if attorneys are identified with hated clients – that would corrode the essence of a system in which everyone is entitled to a vigorous defense. Republicans know this – it’s why they didn’t attack Chief Justice John Roberts for his pro-bono work on behalf of a mass murderer – but the opportunity to sink an Obama nominee and further discredit the civil rights cause was too tempting to disregard. 

Adegbile’s defeat has another salutory effect for conservatives – it sends the message to young, idealistic, liberal lawyers that the Democratic Party will not stand behind you if you take on controversial causes or clients. Better to represent corporate clients whose political contributions and influence can shield you from controversy. While conservatives are free to associate with any number of right-leaning legal organizations, mere association with civil rights groups will have you branded an anti-white racist and radical, especially if you’re not white. 

Therein lies the greater danger of Adegbile’s defeat, that the next generation of government lawyers to staff a Democratic administration won’t just not believe in the purpose behind the laws they’re meant to enforce. It’s that they won’t believe in anything at all. 

The Republican war on civil rights laws

Updated