Last month, the US Senate failed to invoke cloture on the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department after a right-wing smear campaign that attacked Adegbile for helping provide legal representation at the appellate level to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a convicted murderer, while working at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Every Senate Republican and seven Democrats voted to filibuster Adegbile’s nomination, effectively blocking the nomination and throwing out the window the constitutional ideal that all criminal defendants should have access to quality legal representation.
Last week, over one thousand law professors came together to publicly condemn the vote by writing a letter to the Senate where they explain the ramifications of the vote for law students, lawyers, and the legal profession as a whole. The letter – dated April 25, 2014 – states:
[W]e are deeply concerned that the vote and the rationale publicly articulated by a majority of Senators rejecting Mr. Adegbile sends a message that goes to several core values of the legal profession. These include the right to counsel, the importance of pro bono representation, and the importance of ensuring that constitutional protections are afforded to every criminal defendant regardless of the crimes for which they are accused.
As law teachers we are particularly concerned about the disquieting message conveyed to law students and graduates entering the profession who may fear that their engagement with pro bono representation of unpopular clients may imperil their future eligibility for federal government service.
…We believe that the criticism of Mr. Adegbile, based on his representation of a death row inmate, is unjust and inconsistent with the fundamental tenets of our profession. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the assistance of counsel to persons charged with crimes, and all accused defendants are entitled to zealous representation by competent counsel.
The highest calling of any lawyer is to ensure that the Constitution is applied fairly and in accordance with the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court to every defendant.
…The debate surrounding Mr. Adegbile’s confirmation also threatens to undermine the widely-recognized importance of lawyers providing pro bono representation to meet unmet legal needs. Providing representation to defendants on death row is among the most challenging, resource-intensive and critically important pro bono counsel a lawyer can provide. Lawyers engaged in this work should be commended rather than denounced for their hard-work and commitment to ensuring that the protections of the Constitution are extended even to those accused of heinous crimes.
…Finally, as every lawyer knows – including the 57 in the U.S. Senate – we are not our clients. The constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel would be turned on its head if the contrary view were advanced. Indeed, had past candidates for public office been held to the Senate’s unjust standard, our nation would have been deprived of the likes of President John Adams (who defended British soldiers charged with killing Americans in the Boston Massacre), Justice Thurgood Marshall (who defended countless black men on death row in the Jim Crow South), and Chief Justice John Roberts (who represented convicted serial killer John Errol Ferguson).
Simply put, the rule of law cannot succeed if attorneys are judged guilty by association with their clients. In rejecting a qualified nominee for public service based on conduct which reflects the best of our profession, the Senate has done a grave disservice to the legal profession and those who seek to enter it.
Today the Senate voted to block the nomination of Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice despite extensive qualifications, an extraordinary career and a record of commitment to civil rights. People For the American Way Vice President Marge Baker issued the following statement:
“This vote is deeply disappointing for anyone who cares about civil rights. There’s no question that Debo is extraordinarily well qualified for this position. He’s worked for years as a lawyer addressing important civil rights issues in our country, and he possesses an unquestionably brilliant legal mind. Someone like Debo Adegbile is exactly the kind of person that the President and the Senate should want in a key DOJ post.
“Unfortunately, this nomination has been swept up in the poisonous atmosphere that’s engulfed Capitol Hill. Instead of praising Debo for taking on important, challenging issues in our justice system, his opponents rushed to twist and distort his record.
“Attacking an attorney for representing an unpopular criminal client is a toxic strategy for winning a political fight and deeply disruptive to the American ideal of everyone deserving a fair hearing before a court of law. Today’s vote is a triumph of demagoguery.”
This week, People For the American Way sent a letter to every U.S. senator, urging them to confirm Debo Adegbile to head the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. Adegbile’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was this morning.
The letter [pdf] praises Adegbile’s civil rights record, which includes arguing two critical voting rights cases before the Supreme Court:
Because of its importance in enforcing laws eliminating barriers to equality and opportunity, the Civil Rights Division is a critical means by which Americans protect the promises and values of the United States Constitution. Among many other things, the Civil Rights Division is charged with helping to eliminate discrimination in employment, housing, and education. The Division also has the responsibility to protect the right to vote, which Thomas Paine rightly observed over 200 years ago is “the primary right by which other rights are protected.”
It is fitting, therefore, given the enormity of the Civil Rights Division’s responsibilities, that President Obama has nominated one of this generation’s preeminent civil rights litigators, the supremely qualified Debo Adegbile, to lead the Division. Adegbile’s career exemplifies a dedication to advancing the civil rights of all Americans. Before becoming senior counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he spent more than a decade in various leadership positions at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, overseeing civil rights litigation at both the trial and appellate level. As director of litigation, then as acting president, Adegbile not only developed expertise in the areas of education, economic justice, criminal justice, and nonpartisan political participation, he also exercised the type of significant administrative and leadership responsibilities that will serve the Civil Rights Division well. Firefighters, school custodians, public parks employees, and Katrina evacuees are just some of the ordinary people all across the nation whom Adegbile has helped.
Adegbile has special expertise in voting rights, and he has twice defended the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act before the United States Supreme Court. He also worked extensively on the 2005-2006 legislative effort to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, which led to overwhelming bipartisan majorities voting to renew the law in 2006.
Unfortunately, some conservative activists are opposing Adegbile’s nomination because they object to his civil rights record. We looked at some of those attacks over at Right Wing Watch today.
As the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing today on the nomination of civil rights attorney Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Republican senators are facing pressure from right-wing activists to sink his nomination.
Conservatives have not been fans of the civil rights division under the leadership of President Obama and Attorney General Holder, who installed now-Labor Secretary Tom Perez to restore the division to its original purpose after neglect under the Bush administration. In other words, President Obama has nominated civil rights advocates to the office and encouraged them to enforce civil rights measures….which is just too much for some conservative activists to bear.
Leading the charge against Adegbile and the division he’s been nominated to head is J. Christian Adams, a former Bush administration Justice Department official whose “claim to fame as a federal lawyer,” according to The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen , “seems to be his penchant for accusing black people of discriminating against whites.”
Since Holder took over the Justice Department, Adams has dedicated himself to stirring up racial panic over the civil rights division’s work. It was Adams who drove the conservative media freakout over the New Black Panther Party. He has also been an active voice in opposing the Holder Justice Department’s increased efforts to protect voting rights and testified before Congress against a meaningful restoration of the Voting Rights Act after its decimation at the hands of the Supreme Court.
Adams even wrote a book called Injustice: Exposing The Racial Agenda Of The Obama Justice Department, which dwells on the New Black Panther story and accuses the Obama DOJ of “insisting on kids’ rights to attend school dressed as transvestites” and a “fixation on racial grievance” which the book claims “threaten[ed] the integrity of the 2012 elections.” In the book, Adams accuses Holder and his civil rights team of seeking “payback” against whites and of supporting efforts to “switch the positions of historic oppressor and the historically oppressed.”
So, naturally, Adams has taken the lead in opposing Adegbile’s nomination to head the civil rights division, since from his record it seems that Adegbile would actually use the position to enforce civil rights. Adegbile, a child of immigrants, had astint as a child actor on Sesame Street before putting himself through school and ultimately landing in a top position at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
It is Adegbiles’ work at the LDF work that Adams and his allies have jumped on. In a post on Pajamas Media in November, Adams attacked the LDF as “an organization that has pushed a radical racial agenda including attacks on election integrity measures, opposition to criminal background checks for hiring, and racial hiring quotas for state and local governments” -- in other words, support for voting rights, “ban the box” measures , and some affirmative action measures.
Adams also attacked Adegbile for what, in the eyes of civil rights supporters, might be seen as the pinnacle of his career: the two voting rights cases he argued in front of the Supreme Court, including his defense of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 last year. Adams describes the VRA enforcement measure that the Supreme Court struck down as a means to put states that go after voting rights “ under federal control.” Adams also objects to the fact that the LDF filed an amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas.
Finally, Adams and his fellow conservative bloggers have fixated on the LDF’s role in converting Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence to life in prison – assistance that focused not on Abu-Jamal’s guilt or innocence, but on the misleading sentencing instructions provided to the jury in his original trial, which an appellate court, including two Reagan-appointed judges, found to be unconstitutional.
Adams has succeeded in recruiting a raft of conservative activists to his anti-Adegbile cause, including The National Review’s John Fund, who also attacked the nominee for his defense of the Voting Rights Act; former FEC commissioner and voter suppression advocate Hans Von Spakovsky, who told NPR that Obama had failed to “nominate someone who believes in race-neutral enforcement of our discrimination laws”; The Daily Caller, which accused Adegbile of “a radical record on racial issues”; and FrontPage Magazine, which called the nomination evidence of the president’s “ anti-American radicalism.”
The key phrase in Adams’ attack on Adegbile is his characterization of the Obama Justice Department as pushing “nakedly racialist policies” – “racialism” being Adams’ preferred code for the acknowledgement that race and racism still impact American life, an acknowledgment that is critical to the civil rights divisions’ work.
It’s clear that what right-wing activists object to is not so much Adegbile himself, but the fact that he would ably lead a division that is aggressively working to protect voting rights and fight housing and employment discrimination, a division that acknowledges that discrimination is still a reality in the United States.