A handful of Senate Democrats joined their Republican colleagues on Wednesday to block Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s choice to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, after Republicans railed against the nominee for his representation of a client convicted of the 1981 murder of a police officer in Philadelphia.
“They’ve distorted this man’s good name in an attempt to score points politically and block confirmation of a faithful defender of voting rights, which the Republicans do everything they can not to protect,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor shortly before the vote. “I sure hope we get enough votes for this good man. If we don’t, maybe it’s the time that America had a good discussion on civil rights.”
The Democrats didn’t have the votes. As the former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Debo Adegbile had racked up an extensive resume in civil rights litigation and had the backing of civil rights groups. But Republicans focused on the NAACP LDF’s representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981, in order to derail Adegbile’s nomination.
Although Adegbile was a child when Abu-Jamal was convicted, the NAACP LDF later represented him during his appeals process – a fact Republicans used to argue Adegbile was unfit to run the division. Adegbile had worked on a legal brief that argued that the jury instructions during Abu-Jamal’s sentencing were improper – a decision a federal court later agreed with.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Adegible of “seeking to glorify an unrepentant cop-killer.” Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley questioned whether Adegbile could “apply the law in an even-handed way.” And on Tuesday afternoon, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions said, “The civil rights division must protect the civil rights of all Americans, it must not be used as a partisan tool to further the political agenda of any special interest groups, as too often has occurred in this administration in my opinion,” adding that “I do not believe the president’s nominee is therefore qualified, because I do not see the required degree of objectivity and balance that will be necessary.” Sessions once called the NAACP ”communist inspired” and complained that it had “forced civil rights down the throats of people.”
Republicans argued that Adegbile’s advocacy on behalf of civil rights disqualified him from running the civil rights division. Many in the GOP have come to view civil rights-era laws meant to secure basic constitutional rights as nearly equivalent to the very bigotry they’re meant to counteract. But it was the NAACP LDF’s defense of Abu-Jamal that the Senate GOP focused its fire on. That likely spooked seven Senate Democrats, some of whom are facing tough re-election campaigns, into casting votes against Adegbile. Even without the 60-vote threshold required by the filibuster, Democrats couldn’t muster the votes needed to confirm Adegbile, and his nomination went down 47-52.
Reid changed his vote to “no” at the last minute in order to preserve the option of bringing Adegbile’s nomination up for a vote again in the future. But the failure of his nomination is a blow to the administration and the Justice Department at a time when civil rights groups see Republicans as actively seeking to curtail Americans’ right to vote.
Representing murderers hasn’t proved disqualifying before – Republicans confirmed John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court despite his pro-bono work on behalf of a man recently executed for mass murder. When they choose to, Republicans understand that an attorney shouldn’t be identified with his client’s cause. That would prevent top lawyers from defending unpopular clients, which would erode the quality of justice for those accused of terrible crimes.
None of the senators who cast votes against Adegbile, however, will ever have to worry about not being able to afford a fair shake in court.
“Mr. Adegbile played by the rules,” President Obama said in a statement following the vote. “And now Washington politics have used the rules against him.”