On Wednesday, seven Senate Democrats broke ranks and joined with Republicans to not advance Debo Adegbile’s nomination to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The 47-52 vote was the first time the Senate rejected one of President Obama’s nominees since Senate Democrats changed the filibuster rules late last year to require most nominees advance by simple majority vote.
Adegbile, the former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund is one of the nation’s top civil rights lawyers. He twice defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court—an important qualification for the candidate who would be in charge of the division that monitors federal voting rights. Everyone from the American Bar Association to conservative Supreme Court litigation superstar Paul Clement supported Adegbile’s nomination. But it turns out that in 2014, spectacular credentials as a dedicated public servant and broad bipartisan support aren’t enough for Senate confirmation for a top civil rights spot. At least not, it seems, if you’re a Black man.
Indeed, racism is the best explanation for the Adegbile debate and vote. It was precisely because Adegbile is such a good pick to head the justice department’s Civil Rights Division that the right wing launched a vicious smear campaign that, sadly and predictably, worked.
During his time as the director of litigation for the NAACP LDF, Adegbile advocated on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal in efforts to commute Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. Abu-Jamal, a Black man, was convicted of killing a white Philadelphia police officer in 1981. But decades later, a federal appeals court unanimously held that procedures used during the death penalty phase of Abu-Jamal’s hearing violated the Constitution. The NAACP LDF filed an amicus brief on the issue on Abu-Jamal’s behalf that helped lead to Abu-Jamal’s death sentence being commuted.
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Those efforts—filing briefs in appeals decades after the the underlying trial—was enough for the right-wing smear machine to label Adgebile a “cop killer” who was not qualified to lead the division. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called Adegbile’s nomination a “thumb in the eye” of law enforcement. “The nominee inserted his office in an effort to turn reality on its head, impugn honorable and selfless law enforcement officers, and glorify an unrepentant cop killer,” McConnell said in a statement. “This is not required by our legal system. On the contrary, it is noxious to it.”
Of course, as many people have pointed out, Adegbile was only doing his job, advocating for the rights of the accused in the face of the ultimate exercise of state police power
: execution. And he did it well, which is the real problem here. Based in part on Adegbile’s advocacy, a conservative Third Circuit Court of Appeals—the same circuit that gave us Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, and that is chock full of Reagan appointees—found that the jury instructions used in the Abu-Jamal case were wrong and racially biased. The result was that Abu-Jamal’s life was spared. For at least one Senate Democrat, that was reason enough to vote against Adegbile.
I wonder what would have happened if Adegbile’s efforts at the NAACP LDF had failed. Would his nomination have gone the way of Chief Justice John Roberts, who while in private practice worked pro bono in the defense of John Errol Ferguson, a convicted mass murderer who was eventually executed in Florida for his crimes? The privileged, private-practice experience of Chief Justice John Roberts defending the rights of a murderer is characterized as a “lawyer doing his job.” But for Debo Adegbile—the son of a white mother and Nigerian father who rose from deep poverty to a celebrated career advocating for checks on abusive state power—successfully defeating one application of the systemic racial bias inherent in our criminal justice system is considered “noxious.” This is all the proof we need that racial politics drove this vote.
Lorraine C. Miller, NAACP interim president and CEO, blasted the failure of the Adegbile nomination to advance in a statement. “It is outrageous that the United States Senate failed to confirm Debo Adegbile as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights,” she said. “The Senate failed to see through a shameful disinformation campaign that intentionally tries to hold Mr. Adegbile responsible for a terrible crime committed by a defendant when Mr. Adegbile was only 8 years old. To allow this narrow, misguided agenda to punish Mr. Adegbile for upholding the core tenets of the Constitution is unfathomable and does a disservice to our nation.”
People for the American Way Vice President Marge Baker also expressed disappointment following the Senate vote. “This vote is deeply disappointing for anyone who cares about civil rights,” she said in a statement. “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.”
I actually think they are both being too kind. Ari Berman at The Nation described it as “Willie Horton Politics,” and he’s right; but I’ll go even further. Adegbile’s advocacy work directly challenges institutionalized racism, whether at the NAACP LDF, his work on voting rights, or advocacy work on “ban the box,” which ends criminal background checks for some forms of employment as a way to deal with the lingering effects of criminalizing entire populations of young Black men in this country (a practice, which,
by the way, the Target Corporation has signed on to partially in response to Minneapolis activists showing the company the connection between hiring practices that exclude ex-offenders and ongoing racialized income inequality). This is why both Senate Democrats and Republicans opposed his nomination : because it was a nomination that both recognized the reality of institutionalized racism and one that was designed to directly target it. And it’s what makes the decision by Senate Democrats to vote against the nomination extra awful—because they just fell in line with those politics at the exact moment when they could have stood in opposition to them by calling them out and even perhaps advancing a nominee against them .
The Democratic senators who voted against Adegbile include Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), John Walsh (Montana), Chris Coons (Delaware), and Bob Casey Jr. (Pennyslvania). Sen. Harry Reid (Nevada) also voted no on the nomination, but that was for procedural reasons to keep the nomination alive for possible reconsideration in the future.