During the recent crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, the U.S. Department of Justice was eager to intervene, but there was an administrative problem. The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, tasked with leading the investigation into Michael Brown’s death, has no permanent chief – and hasn’t had one in over a year.
President Obama nominated a highly qualified civil-rights attorney, Debo Adegbile, but the Senate refused to confirm him. Many hoped the setback was temporary and that Adegbile would yet get another chance, but today, his confirmation journey ended in a formal withdrawal.
A prominent civil rights lawyer whose nomination to a Justice Department post this spring was blocked over his role in efforts to commute the death sentence of a high-profile convicted murderer is joining law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP. The selection drew strong opposition from police groups, Republicans and, ultimately, seven Senate Democrats who in March helped block his nomination.
For those who didn’t follow the controversy in the spring, Adegbile’s nomination ran into trouble because of opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police – Adegbile worked as part of a legal team on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeal. Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981.
Conservative media launched an ugly smear campaign, with one Fox News pundit going so far as to call him a “cop killer coddler.”
Despite the American principle that attorneys are not to be condemned for the crimes of their clients, the Senate balked. Literally every Republican in the chamber opposed Adegbile’s nomination, as did seven Democrats. He needed a simple majority, but couldn’t get it.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) characterized the vote as “about the lowest point that I think this Senate has descended into in my 30 years here,” and six months later, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Adegbile deserved better than what he received.
There were no doubts about his qualifications and background.
The child of a white mother and Nigerian father, Adegbile emerged from an impoverished upbringing in the South Bronx to become an experienced Supreme Court litigator as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. That’s part of the reason his nomination is being opposed by many conservatives. On matters of voting rights, affirmative action, and racial discrimination, Adegbile holds views that are broadly consistent with the Obama administration, the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and in many cases longstanding legal precedent. Conservatives view those positions as tantamount to, if not worse than, the discrimination that the policies are meant to resolve.The issue that has stirred intense conservative opposition to Adegbile is the NAACP LDF’s successful defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black radical who was convicted of murdering white police officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia in 1982. He presided over the team that successfully persuaded a federal court to commute Abu-Jamal’s death sentence.
As we discussed at the time, it’s apparently become easy for some – including a majority of the U.S. Senate – to forget that in the United States, we believe that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a defense. It’s a basic principle woven into the fabric of our justice system. No matter how heinous or shocking the allegations, we’re committed to a process in which defendants are treated fairly, including a right to competent counsel.
We also believe that lawyers are not be judged on their clients’ crimes. We’ve actually believed this since before we were even our own country: in 1770, John Adams provided the defense for eight British soldiers accused of the murders in the Boston Massacre. It didn’t mean Adams was un-American. It didn’t even stop Adams from later becoming president.
More recently, John Roberts did pro-bono work as an attorney on behalf of a man executed for mass murder. It didn’t stop the Bush/Cheney nominating him to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court and it didn’t stop Senate Republicans from embracing him en masse.
A majority of the Senate, including the entirety of the Senate GOP, lost sight of this basic principle. Adegbile’s withdrawal is understandable – his odds were poor and he has a legal career to consider – but that doesn’t change the disappointment that comes with watching our political system fail.
Update: Ryan J. Reilly talked to Adegbile today. Take a look; it’s fascinating to see his perspective now that the process has ended.