Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Debo Adegbile deserved full Democratic support and Senate confirmation to top civil rights post

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Debo Adegbile is supremely qualified to lead the Justice Department's civil rights division. He was, after all, the director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, working for that organization in different legal capacities from 2001 to now. He has argued cases before the Supreme Court and is, needless to say, an expert in a wide range of civil rights matters.

But as director of litigation at the NAACP he worked -- among many other things -- on the defense team for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been sentenced to death for killing a Philadelphia policeman. And not in the original trial phase but only in the death penalty phase, where -- as I'll get to shortly -- there were serious constitutional problems that needed addressing. But no matter. Apparently it's not appropriate to do such things -- to defend a black man facing death on a civil rights violation (just as apparently certain people don't deserve their constitutional rights to defend themselves in court, and those who defend them are somehow doing something wrong) -- and that was enough to turn enough Democrats against him to join with the anti-Obama Republican mob to block his nomination in the Senate. He was rejected 52-47.

One expects Republicans to oppose a supremely qualified Obama nominee for the top civil rights job in the federal government, especially a black man from the NAACP, but what's up with Dems voting against him? Well, they're the barely Democratic, Republican-leaning Democrats from purple and red states you might expect them to be -- Bob Casey (PA), Chris Coons (DE), Joe Donnelly (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WV), Mark Pryor (AR) and John Walsh (MT). All that was needed was a simple majority, but these cowards stood with the Republican obstructionists, and worse, to vote down a great nominee.

ThinkProgress explains what happened:

Debo Adegbile, who previously served as the acting head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is one of the nation's top civil rights attorneys. He's also a leading expert on voting rights who twice defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court — the first time successfully. He was, in other words, an ideal candidate to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division — the division which, among other things, oversees the federal government's voting rights work in an era where conservative state lawmakers are currently waging a widespread campaign to prevent demographic groups that tend to vote for Democrats from casting a ballot.

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Although most of these senators have yet to offer an explanation for their votes — and the Senate offices ThinkProgress contacted shortly after the vote were not especially forthcoming — it is likely that their votes were motivated by a campaign to disqualify Adegbile because of a high profile case the NAACP LDF participated in during his time with that organization.

In 2008, a federal appeals court unanimously held — with two Reagan appointees on the panel — that procedures used during a convicted cop killer named Mumia Abu-Jamal's death penalty hearing violated the Constitution. Specifically, the panel of predominantly Republican judges concluded that the trial judge gave the jury a confusing form that could have been read to require a death sentence unless every single juror agreed to a life sentence. The NAACP LDF filed an amicus brief on Abu-Jamal’s behalf.

At least one of the Democrats who opposed Adegbile, Sen. Casey, cited his work to overturn this unconstitutional death sentence as the reason for his opposition.

As MSNBC's Adam Serwer points out, the Senate was not always so critical of lawyers who help bad people fight potentially unconstitutional death sentences. Indeed, as an attorney in private practice, Chief Justice John Roberts "devoted 25 pro bono hours" to representing a mass murderer recently executed in Florida.

So what was this really about? Yes, Republicans trying to block anything and everything Obama does and clearly seeing an opening here, but also, clearly, race. And, more to the point, racism.

Again, this is a black man, a brilliant and successful black man, who on civil rights grounds defended a black man in a death penalty case. Imagine if Adegbile were a white man who had defended a white man convicted of murder, even of murdering a policeman. You think he would have gotten the same treatment? You think the Senate would have blocked his nomination? Please.

This was simply shameful. And a handful of ignominious Democrats made it happen.

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