There are few ideas more quintessentially American than this: If the government is going to use its awesome power to imprison and execute you or a member of your family, it must do so in a way that complies with the safeguards set forth in the Bill of Rights. That basic tenet of the United States Constitution is vital to the preservation of liberty for all Americans.
Whether it’s an innocent person in the crosshairs or a heinous criminal, these protections must apply. After all, if those in power have the right to ignore the Constitution in order to imprison or even execute “the bad guys,” they can use the same loopholes to go after the rest of us. That’s one reason why all criminal defendants deserve quality legal representation: to protect not just the rights of the innocent, but of the guilty, as well, because that protects us all. The Bill of Rights contains no exemptions for bad people.
Unfortunately, that ideal was thrown out the window in the U.S. Senate today in a triumph of demagoguery, when a majority voted to continue the filibuster of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. When he was with the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP, he was involved in the representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had previously been convicted of killing a police officer. After Abu-Jamal’s conviction and sentence to death, LDF represented him in court and argued that the sentence had been based on unconstitutionally faulty jury instructions. The courts agreed, and his sentence was altered to life in prison.
And for this representation, the Right Wing whipped up opposition to Adegbile’s nomination, linking the lawyer with his “cop-killer” client and condemning him for providing representation at all. Every Republican present voted to filibuster Adegbile, as did seven Democrats.
What would they have wanted? Do we want to give courts carte blanche to have Americans executed without adhering to constitutional requirements? The same Republicans and Far Right figures who peddle the paranoid fantasy that President Obama is a dictator who is destroying our constitutional freedoms should take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves what kind of world we would live in if we simply tossed the Bill of Rights out the window when we don’t like a particular criminal defendant. And so should the seven Democrats who joined them today.