Commentary Law and Policy

Racism at Play in Blocked Obama Nomination

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Racism is the best explanation for the debate surrounding Debo Adegbile's nomination to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. It was precisely because Adegbile is such a good pick to head the division that the right wing launched a vicious smear campaign that, sadly and predictably, worked.

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.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

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.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Republican National Convention Edition

Ally Boguhn

The Trump family's RNC claims about crime and the presidential candidate's record on gender equality have kept fact-checkers busy.

Republicans came together in Cleveland this week to nominate Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention (RNC), generating days of cringe-inducing falsehoods and misleading statements on crime, the nominee’s positions on gender equality, and LGBTQ people.

Trump’s Acceptance Speech Blasted for Making False Claims on Crime

Trump accepted the Republican nomination in a Thursday night speech at the RNC that drew harsh criticism for many of its misleading and outright false talking points.

Numerous fact-checkers took Trump to task, calling out many of his claims for being “wrong,” and “inflated or misleading.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

 Among the most hotly contested of Trump’s claims was the assertion that crime has exploded across the country.

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” Trump claimed, according to his prepared remarks, which were leaked ahead of his address. “Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore.”

Crime rates overall have been steadily declining for years.

“In 2015, there was an uptick in homicides in 36 of the 50 largest cities compared to the previous years. The rate did, indeed, increase nearly 17 percent, and it was the worst annual change since 1990. The homicide rate was up 54.3 percent in Washington, and 58.5 percent in Baltimore,” explained Washington Post fact checkers Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee. “But in the first months of 2016, homicide trends were about evenly split in the major cities. Out of 63 agencies reporting to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, 32 cities saw a decrease in homicides in first quarter 2016 and 31 saw an increase.”

Ames Grawert, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said in a statement posted to the organization’s website that 2016 statistics aren’t sufficient in declaring crime rate trends. 

“Overall, crime rates remain at historic lows. Fear-inducing soundbites are counterproductive, and distract from nuanced, data-driven, and solution-oriented conversations on how to build a smarter criminal justice system in America,” Grawert said. “It’s true that some cities saw an increase in murder rates last year, and that can’t be ignored, but it’s too early to say if that’s part of a national trend.” 

When Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, was confronted with the common Republican falsehoods on crime during a Thursday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, he claimed that the FBI’s statistics were not to be trusted given that the organization recently advised against charges in connection with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

“According to FBI statistics, crime rates have been going down for decades,” Tapper told Manafort. “How can Republicans make the argument that it’s somehow more dangerous today when the facts don’t back that up?”

“People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods,” said Manafort, going on to claim that “the FBI is certainly suspect these days after what they did with Hillary Clinton.”

There was at least one notable figure who wholeheartedly embraced Trump’s fearmongering: former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. “Great Trump Speech,” tweeted Duke on Thursday evening. “Couldn’t have said it better!”

Ben Carson Claims Transgender People Are Proof of “How Absurd We Have Become”

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson criticized the existence of transgender people while speaking at the Florida delegation breakfast on Tuesday in Cleveland.  

“You know, we look at this whole transgender thing, I’ve got to tell you: For thousands of years, mankind has known what a man is and what a woman is. And now, all of a sudden we don’t know anymore,” said Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. “Now, is that the height of absurdity? Because today you feel like a woman, even though everything about you genetically says that you’re a man or vice versa?”

“Wouldn’t that be the same as if you woke up tomorrow morning after seeing a movie about Afghanistan or reading some books and said, ‘You know what? I’m Afghanistan. Look, I know I don’t look that way. My ancestors came from Sweden, or something, I don’t know. But I really am. And if you say I’m not, you’re a racist,’” Carson said. “This is how absurd we have become.”

When confronted with his comments during an interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Carson doubled down on his claims.“There are biological markers that tell us whether we are a male or a female,” said Carson. “And just because you wake up one day and you say, ‘I think I’m the other one,’ that doesn’t change it. Just, a leopard can’t change its spots.”

“It’s not as if they woke up one day and decided, ‘I’m going to be a male or I’m going to be a female,’” Couric countered, pointing out that transgender people do not suddenly choose to change their gender identities on a whim.

Carson made several similar comments last year while on the campaign trail.

In December, Carson criticized the suggested that allowing transgender people into the military amounted to using the armed services “as a laboratory for social experimentation.”

Carson once suggested that allowing transgender people to use the restroom that aligned with their gender identity amounted to granting them “extra rights.”

Ivanka Trump Claims Her Father Supports Equal Pay, Access to Child Care

Ivanka Trump, the nominee’s daughter, made a pitch during her speech Thursday night at the RNC for why women voters should support her father.

“There have always been men of all background and ethnicities on my father’s job sites. And long before it was commonplace, you also saw women,” Ivanka Trump said. “At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives. Women are paid equally for the work that we do and when a woman becomes a mother, she is supported, not shut out.” 

“As president, my father will change the labor laws that were put into place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce. And he will focus on making quality child care affordable and accessible for all,” she continued before pivoting to address the gender wage gap. 

“Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties; they should be the norm. Politicians talk about wage equality, but my father has made it a practice at his company throughout his entire career.”

However, Trump’s stated positions on the gender wage gap, pregnancy and mothers in the workplace, and child care don’t quite add up to the picture the Trumps tried to paint at the RNC.

In 2004, Trump called pregnancy an “inconvenience” for employers. When a lawyer asked for a break during a deposition in 2011 to pump breast milk, Trump reportedly called her “disgusting.”

According to a June analysis conducted by the Boston Globe, the Trump campaign found that men who worked on Trump’s campaign “made nearly $6,100, or about 35 percent more [than women during the April payroll]. The disparity is slightly greater than the gender pay gap nationally.”

A former organizer for Trump also filed a discrimination complaint in January, alleging that she was paid less than her male counterparts.

When Trump was questioned about equal pay during a campaign stop last October, he did not outline his support for policies to address the issue. Instead, Trump suggested that, “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.” Though he had previously stated that men and women who do the same job should be paid the same during an August 2015 interview on MSNBC, he also cautioned that determining whether people were doing the same jobs was “tricky.”

Trump has been all but completely silent on child care so far on the campaign trail. In contrast, Clinton released an agenda in May to address the soaring costs of child care in the United States.

Ivanka’s claims were not the only attempt that night by Trump’s inner circle to explain why women voters should turn to the Republican ticket. During an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Manafort said that women would vote for the Republican nominee because they “can’t afford their lives anymore.”

“Many women in this country feel they can’t afford their lives, their husbands can’t afford to be paying for the family bills,” claimed Manafort. “Hillary Clinton is guilty of being part of the establishment that created that problem. They’re going to hear the message. And as they hear the message, that’s how we are going to appeal to them.”

What Else We’re Reading

Vox’s Dara Lind explained how “Trump’s RNC speech turned his white supporters’ fear into a weapon.”

Now that Mike Pence is the Republican nominee for vice president, Indiana Republicans have faced “an intense, chaotic, awkward week of brazen lobbying at the breakfast buffet, in the hallways and on the elevators” at the convention as they grapple with who will run to replace the state’s governor, according to the New York Times.

“This is a party and a power structure that feels threatened with extinction, willing to do anything for survival,” wrote Rebecca Traister on Trump and the RNC for New York Magazine. “They may not love Trump, but he is leading them precisely because he embodies their grotesque dreams of the restoration of white, patriarchal power.”

Though Trump spent much of the primary season denouncing big money in politics, while at the RNC, he courted billionaires in hopes of having them donate to supporting super PACs.

Michael Kranish reported for the Washington Post that of the 2,472 delegates at the RNC, it is estimated that only 18 were Black.

Cosmopolitan highlighted nine of the most sexist things that could be found at the convention.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked, “Where are these contributions that have been made” by people of color to civilization?

Commentary Law and Policy

Republicans Make History in Obstructing Merrick Garland for Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Merrick Garland is now officially the longest Supreme Court nominee to go without confirmation hearings or a vote in U.S. history.

Merrick Garland, President Obama’s selection to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, now has the dubious distinction of being the longest U.S. Supreme Court nominee ever to go without a vote to confirm or reject his appointment, thanks to Senate Republicans’ refusal to do their jobs.

I can’t say it any differently. This has been an utter, total failure by grown men, and a few women, in the Senate to do the kind of thing they’re supposed to in exchange for getting paid by the rest of us. And after nearly a decade of unprecedented—and I mean unprecedentedobstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees writ large, there’s no flowery language that can capture how our federal courts’ slow burn on the the Republicans’ watch has now caught full fire with the fight over Garland’s nomination.

Instead what we have are dry, hard facts. A century ago, Justice Louis Brandeis was forced to wait 125 days before his confirmation to become the first Jewish justice on the Court. Justice Scalia died on February 13 of this year. President Obama nominated Garland on March 16. Wednesday marked 126 days of zero Senate action on that nomination.

And since Congress is now on recess, that won’t be changing anytime soon.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

It’s not just that the Senate hasn’t held a vote. They have held no hearings. Several senators have refused to meet with Garland. They have taken. No. Action. Not a bit. And here’s the kicker: None of us should be surprised.

President Obama had no sooner walked off the Rose Garden lawn after announcing Garland’s nomination in March than Senate Republicans announced their plan to sit on it until after the presidential election. Eight months away. In November.

Senate Republicans’ objection isn’t to Garland himself. He’s a moderate who has generally received bipartisan praise and support throughout his career and should, on any other day, sail through the confirmation process. As compared with both of President Obama’s other appointments, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, Garland is practically a gift to Senate Republicans in all his moderate-aging-white-guy-ness. I mean, who would have thought that of all the nominees Republicans were going to double-down their obstruction efforts on, it would be Justice Dad?

Instead, their objection is to the fact that the democratic process should guarantee they lose control of the Supreme Court. Unless, of course, they can stop that process.

Conservatives have spent decades investing in the federal courts as a partisan tool. They did so by building an infrastructure of sympathetic conservative federal judges through appointments when in executive power, and by blocking liberal attempts to do the same when in the political minority. It’s an investment that has largely paid off. Federal circuit appeals courts like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth issue reliably conservative opinions regularly, thanks to aggressive appointments by conservatives during the Reagan and Bush years.

Meanwhile, thanks to conservative obstruction under Democratic administrations—most egregiously under President Obama—71 district court seats currently sit vacant. Twenty-four of those seats are in jurisdictions considered by the courts themselves to be judicial emergencies: places where the caseload is so great or the seat has remained vacant for so long the court is at risk of no longer functioning.

It’s easy to see why conservatives would want to keep their grip on the federal judiciary given the kinds of issues before it: These are the courts that hear immigration and detention cases, challenges to abortion restrictions, employment discrimination cases, as well as challenges to voting rights restrictions. Just to name a few. But as long as there are no judges, the people being directly affected are left in limbo as their cases drag on and on and on.

Our federal courts of appeals are no better. Nine federal appellate seats sit vacant, five in jurisdictions deemed judicial emergencies.

These vacancies have nominees. Senate Republicans just refuse to confirm them.

And no, the other side doesn’t do this. Federal judgeships have always been political. But never have the Democrats used the judiciary as a blatantly partisan extension of their elected members.

The refusal to vote on Garland’s nomination is the most visible example of the conservatives’ drive to maintain control over the federal courts, but it’s hardly their most blatant display of sheer partisanship. I’m guessing that is yet to come when, should they lose the presidential election, Senate Republicans face the choice of quickly confirming Garland or continuing their stand-off indefinitely. And given what we’ve seen of the election cycle so far, do we really think Senate Republicans are going to suddenly grow up and do their jobs? I hate to say it, folks, but Merrick Garland isn’t getting confirmed anytime soon.