Last week, on March 5, a majority of Senators voted to block the nomination of Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s choice to be the next Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights – replacing Tom Perez, now Secretary of Labor. The vote to refuse to confirm Adegbile was 47-52 (with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) casting a “no” vote in order to preserve the possibility of bringing the nomination to the floor again).
Adegbile’s nomination had attracted considerable support – including the American Bar Association and a number of leading conservative advocates who had been on the other side of legal arguments with Adegbile in the past. The Anti-Defamation League was among 86 national civil rights, religious, and law enforcement organizations that had endorsed his nomination in a letter to Senators.
Adegbile was not defeated because he was unqualified for the post. To the contrary, Adegbile, a voting rights expert who had argued two cases before the United States Supreme Court, is one of the pre-eminent civil rights litigators of his generation. He had served as Director of Litigation and, later, as Acting President and Director-Counsel of the storied civil rights organization, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF).
Instead, opposition to Adegbile was focused, almost exclusively, on the fact that the LDF became counsel for Mumia Abu-Jamal during his tenure. Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Far from “seeking to glorify an unrepentant cop-killer,” as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrongly asserted, LDF lawyers had not argued that Abu-Jamal was innocent or wrongly convicted. They argued, in post-conviction appeal proceedings, that his death sentence had been tainted by jury instructions that were flawed and improper – an argument that prevailed in the courts. Adegbile was involved in the case tangentially, in a supervisory capacity.
As the controversy over Adegbile’s LDF involvement in the Abu-Jamal appeal grew, the President of the American Bar Association felt it necessary to write to Senators to remind them how the criminal justice system in America is supposed to work:
I was alarmed to learn that there is some opposition to Mr. Adegbile’s nomination based solely on his efforts to protect the fundamental rights of an unpopular client while working at the Legal Defense Fund. His work, like the work of ABA members who provide thousands of hours of pro bono legal services every year, is consistent with the finest tradition of this country’s legal profession and should be commended, not condemned.
Following his defeat, many commentators have rightly labeled the Senate’s treatment of Adegbile unfair, contrasting his involvement in representing a highly unpopular defendant with similar legal representation by former President John Adams and Chief Justice John Roberts – who both, famously, represented individuals charged with murder. In 1770, John Adams represented British soldiers indicted for murdering five people in what would later be called the “Boston Massacre” during British occupation of the colonies. Six of the soldiers on trial, including their commanding officer, were acquitted of the charges, and two others were convicted on manslaughter. And when he was in private practice, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts represented a Florida death-row inmate who, with two co-defendants, had been convicted of killing eight people in 1978.
The defeat of Debo Adegbile’s nomination sends a deeply disturbing message to lawyers who might now think twice before affiliating with advocacy groups or serving justice by representing controversial figures or causes.