Last month, in endorsing President Obama’s nomination of veteran litigator Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, a Los Angeles Times editorial noted the possibility that Republicans would line up against the nominee. But the editorial added: “Now that the filibuster has been abolished for most nominations, it is unlikely that Republican senators can block Adegbile’s confirmation.”
We reckoned without the possibility that a smear campaign against Adegbile by the Fraternal Order of Police would deny this well-qualified nominee votes from some easily influenced Democrats.
On Wednesday, the Senate blocked the Adegbile nomination — probably permanently — when several Democrats joined Republicans to prevent it from proceeding. Among those Democrats were Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Chris Coons of Delaware, a state that is sometimes described as a suburb of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia looms large in the Adegbile fight because the nominee, a former lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was involved in that group’s advocacy on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
Adegbile and other Legal Defense Fund attorneys filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court in 2009 claiming that Abu-Jamal’s conviction was invalid because of racial discrimination in jury selection. They represented Abu-Jamal directly when prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to reinstate his death sentence.
The Fraternal Order of Police complained 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.
The president of the American Bar Assn. told the Senate Judiciary Committee 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.”
That should have been enough to defuse the Fraternal Order of Police’s campaign. But Casey and Coons voted no anyway. Here is Casey’s tortured explanation, which ought to keep him out of any future edition of “Profiles in Courage”:
“I respect that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime. At the same time, it is important that we ensure that Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country have full confidence in their public representatives — both elected and appointed. The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the city of Philadelphia.”
Coons offered an equally unsatisfactory explanation: “There is no question that Mr. Adegbile has had a significant and broad career as a leading civil rights advocate, and would be an asset to the Justice Department, but at a time when the Civil Rights Division urgently needs better relations with the law enforcement community, 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 also noted that there had been a decades-long campaign “to elevate a heinous, coldblooded killer to the status of a political prisoner and folk hero.”
Abu-Jamal indeed was the beneficiary of uncritical adulation and a form of “radical chic.” But Adegbile wasn’t part of that campaign, and his nomination shouldn’t suffer for it. A senator made of sterner stuff would have politely informed the Fraternal Order of Police of that fact.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3