Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, is an experienced litigator and specialist in civil rights law. In a rational world, he would receive unanimous confirmation. But as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares to vote on his nomination, Adegbile faces opposition from conservatives who don’t like his legal philosophy and a law enforcement group that won’t forgive him for participating in the appeal of a man convicted of killing a police officer.
Neither objection has merit. Like any president, Obama is entitled to Justice Department officials who share his views. As for the charge that Adegbile is hostile to law enforcement, it’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of a lawyer’s role.
The most sensational — and unfair — criticism of Adegbile involves the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. Adegbile and other attorneys at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a brief with the Supreme Court in 2009 asserting that Abu-Jamal’s conviction was invalid because of racial discrimination in jury selection. Two years later they represented Abu-Jamal directly when prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to reinstate his death sentence.
The Fraternal Order of Police complained to Obama that Abu-Jamal’s “just sentence — death — was undone by your nominee and others like him.” Actually, it was a federal appeals court that overturned Abu-Jamal’s death sentence, citing flawed jury instructions.
And it’s offensive to suggest that Adegbile should be disqualified because he provided representation to a client, even one convicted of a shocking crime. In a letter to the Judiciary Committee, James Silkenat, the president of the American Bar Assn., wrote that Adegbile’s representation of an unpopular client was “consistent with the finest tradition of this country’s legal profession and should be commended, not condemned.”
Equally dubious is the idea, implied in questions posed to Adegbile by Republican senators, that his candidacy is complicated by the fact that the Supreme Court rejected legal arguments he and the Legal Defense Fund espoused. In the most prominent such case — the court’s 5-4 decision striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act — Adegbile was right and the majority was wrong. But Adegbile has promised that, as assistant attorney general, he would abide by that and other precedents.
Now that the filibuster has been abolished for most nominations, it is unlikely that Republican senators can block Adegbile’s confirmation. But party-line opposition to such a qualified candidate would still be an outrage.