On March 5, the U.S. Senate announced that it had rejected Debo Adegbile, President Barack Obama’s nomination to oversee the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, due in part to the fact that the New York attorney assisted political prisoner of war Mumia Abu-Jamal get his death sentence commuted to a life term in December 2011.
“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,” Obama said in a statement released afterward.
Attorney General Eric Holder added: “It is a very dangerous precedent to set for the legal profession when individual lawyers can have their otherwise sterling qualifications denigrated based solely on clients that their organizations represent.”
Last Wednesday’s 47-52 narrow denial (45 Republicans, seven Democrats) was anticipated to be closer, with Vice President Joe Biden presiding over the hearing to cast a tie-breaking vote if needed. Under recent Senate rules, only 51 votes were required to overcome the filibuster, not the 60 that used to be necessary.
The Democrats voting against Adegbile were: Sens. Chris Coons, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Joe Manchin, John Walsh, Mark Pryor and Robert Casey Jr. Coons, Pryor and Walsh will run for re-election later this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also voted against the nomination, but only for procedural reasons that will allow him to bring it up again if need be.
“I was troubled by the idea of voting for an assistant attorney general for civil rights who would face such visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on the job,” Coons said in a statement. “The vote I cast today was one of the most difficult I have taken since joining the Senate, but I believe it to be right for the people I represent.”
Some of Obama’s top aides were “furious” at the Democrats who did not support the president’s pick, one senior official said.
Adegbile’s nomination for the influential post that enforces the nation’s anti-discrimination laws caused much opposition from the law enforcement community; the widow of the cop Abu-Jamal is accused of killing, Maureen Faulkner; and politicians alike.
On the Senate floor, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey read a letter from Faulkner: “I would argue that Mr. Adegbile’s decision to defend a cop killer should preclude him from holding any public position.”
However, Adegbile did not make the choice for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to work on Abu-Jamal’s appeal, and according to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judicial Committee, “Even if it had been his decision, it is not something that should disqualify him from serving the public. Our legal system is an adversary system, predicated upon legal advocacy for both sides. Whether it’s John Adams or John Roberts, the principle that all sides deserve an effective counsel is at the bedrock of our constitutional system.”
Obama said his nominee’s “qualifications are impeccable” and “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.”
Obama added that the success of “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.”