Attorneys are not supposed to be judged by the crimes of their clients. It’s a basic American principle that eluded the U.S. Senate today.
The Senate voted 47-52 Wednesday to reject controversial nominee Debo Adegbile as an assistant attorney general.Seven Democrats voted against moving forward with President Obama’s nomination of Adegbile, which the Fraternal Order of Police and other groups opposed because of his involvement in the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981.
Adegbile’s nomination had 48 votes – two shy of a tie, which Vice President Biden would have broken in the nominee’s favor – but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had to switch his vote for procedural reasons.
Every Republican in the chamber voted against Adegbile, and they were joined today by seven Democrats. It’s the first defeat for an Obama nominee since the so-called “nuclear option” was executed last fall.
Any in this instance, it’s pretty easy to argue that Adegbile deserved better.
Adam Serwer has been reporting on this nomination throughout the process.
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.
The smear campaign against Adegbile from conservative media has been especially over the top, with one Fox News pundit going so far as to call him a “cop killer coddler.”
It’s apparently 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.
Americans have 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.
A majority of the Senate lost sight of this today. It was not the institution’s finest hour.
President Obama issued a written statement shortly after the vote, and his evident frustrations are well grounded:
“The Senate’s failure to confirm Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice is a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant. Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable. He represents the best of the legal profession, with wide-ranging experience, and the deep respect of those with whom he has worked. His unwavering dedication to protecting every American’s civil and Constitutional rights under the law – including voting rights – could not be more important right now. And Mr. Adegbile’s personal story – rising from adversity to become someone who President Bush’s Solicitor General referred to as one of the nation’s most capable litigators – is a story that proves what America has been and can be for people who work hard and play by the rules. As a lawyer, Mr. Adgebile has played by the rules. And now, Washington politics have used the rules against him. The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice – and those who voted against his nomination denied the American people an outstanding public servant.”