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Obama's pick for top voting rights enforcer survives grilling

Despite predictions of a rough ride, Debo Adegbile appeared to emerge largely unscathed.
Debo Adegbile talks to reporters outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, Feb. 27, 2013.
Debo Adegbile talks to reporters outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, Feb. 27, 2013. 

Conservatives had predicted that President Obama’s pick to lead the Justice Department division that oversees voting rights would be in for a rough ride during his confirmation hearing Wednesday morning. But civil rights lawyer Debo Adegbile appeared to emerged largely unscathed.

Adegbile, a former top lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was nominated to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights. In that role he would oversee the department’s voting section, among others.

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Adegbile was asked by Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, whether, if confirmed, he would allow states to enact voter ID laws. He replied that it would depend on the law at issue.

“It is not as I understand the role of the assistant attorney general to determine in the first instance how states run their voting systems,” Adegbile said. “It’s only in the context of a particular law” that the Justice Department might intervene.

The Justice Department has filed lawsuits against Texas’ voter ID law and North Carolina’s sweeping voting law, charging that both discriminate against racial minorities. The nomination of Adegbile, and the news that Pamela Karlan, a prominent voting rights lawyer who currently teaches at Stanford will lead the department’s voting section, suggest the department is looking to beef up its voting-rights capacity in advance of those cases and potentially others.

The Fraternal Order of Police Tuesday sent a letter to President Obama opposing Adegbile’s nomination. Adegbile signed an NAACP brief urging that the death sentence of Mumia Abu Jamal, who in 1982 was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer, be overturned because of faulty jury instructions. Abu Jamal's death sentence was ultimately overturned and he is serving life in prison.

Asked by Grassley about his involvement in the case, Adegbile said he had argued simply that the correct legal process be followed.

“These are the hardest cases, but our commitment in the Constitution is to follow these rules even in the hardest cases,” Adegbile said.

Grassley said he would submit additional questions for Adegbile in writing. If approved by the panel, Agebile's nomination would go before the full Senate. A rule change made late last year by Democrats means Republicans cannot filibuster the nomination.

Born in the Bronx to an Irish mother and a Nigerian father, Adegbile experienced periods of homelessness as a child, before attending Connecticut College and New York University Law School. As a top lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile testified before Congress during the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, and argued Shelby County v. Holder before the Supreme Court last year. 

“His journey from the Bronx to this nomination is a remarkable example of the American Dream,” said Sen. Pat Leahy, the Judiciary committee chair on whose staff Adegbile briefly worked last year.