Last month the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The vote broke along party lines, 10-to-8. Over the weekend Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania became the first Democrat to oppose Adegbile. “I will not vote to confirm the nominee,” he said. A cloture vote scheduled for Monday has (because of the snowstorm) been postponed to Wednesday. With Casey’s announcement, Adegbile can no longer be assured that Democratic senators will uniformly support him. Indeed, the question now is whether other Democrats will follow Casey’s lead. It would take six Democrats including Casey to vote against and defeat the nomination.
What other Democrats might decide to vote no? Most likely would be any of the seven from red-states: Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, John Walsh and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. All but Manchin and Tester are up for relection this fall.
Adegbile is a skilled lawyer who from 2001 to 2013 worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the last six of those years as director of litigation, and the final two as director of litigation and acting president.
Where his sponsor, President Obama, has shown a willingness to consider whether affirmative action in admissions should be based not on race but socioeconomic criteria that are race-neutral, Adegbile, to judge by the record of his nomination, has shown no such willingness to rethink some aspect of liberal civil rights orthodoxy. Instead he is predictably to the left, as in his assessment of a voter ID card as a “modern poll tax,” notwithstanding that 30 states have voter ID laws, and that the Supreme Court has sustained a voter ID law against constitutional challenge. And speaking of the Supreme Court, Adegbile, who was involved for the LDF in more than 30 cases in that court, has criticized it for “in recent years drastically undermin[ing] efforts to redeem the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal citizenship for all.”
Conceivably, a Democratic senator from a red state might conclude that voting for a nominee of such views would hurt his political standing at home—and instead vote against him.
As it happens, however, there is another political difficulty for the nomination, and it may concern Democratic senators more broadly. It explains Casey’s announcement over the weekend, and the matter was the subject of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week by Pat Toomey, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, which he wrote with Seth Williams, the district attorney of Philadelphia.
There is here a Philadelphia story, of sorts, involving Philadelphia native Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom the Fraternal Order of Police has described as “our country’s most notorious cop-killer.” Abu-Jamal was a supporter of the racist-anarchist group called “MOVE” that was founded in Philadelphia in 1972 and encouraged violence against police. In 1981 Abu-Jamal shot and killed a 25-year-old city police officer, Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal became a MOVE celebrity, and he tried to turn his trial into political theater and to incite racial violence. He was convicted and given the death penalty in 1982, whereupon three decades of appeals ensued, with the death sentence voided in 2008 because of faulty jury instructions. Abu-Jamal is serving a life sentence.
Appeals require appellate lawyers, of course, and Toomey and Williams point out that Abu-Jamal’s lawyers “echoed their client’s antics in legal maneuvers that made a mockery of the justice system. These appeals primarily functioned as a stage for Abu-Jamal’s hateful ideologies, painting him as the unjustly accused victim of a racist conspiracy.” In 2011, the Legal Defense Fund took on Abu-Jamal as its client, having previously supported his positions in amicus filings. And “under Adegbile’s leadership and through rallies protests, and a media campaign,” observe Toomey and Williams, “the Legal Defense Fund actively fanned the racial firestorm.”
At his confirmation hearing, Toomey and Williams write, Adegbile “was questioned in detail about his own opinions of the incendiary allegations of a racist police conspiracy made by the Legal Defense Fund, [but he] avoided answering the inquiries. Instead he repeatedly deflected questions, stating that he was not the lead lawyer on the case—as if, while acting as litigation director and later president of the legal defense fund, he had failed to notice what was said by its lawyers about the group’s most famous client.”
The list of law enforcement groups opposing the nomination includes not only the Fraternal Order of Police but also the National Sheriffs Association, the National Association of Police Organizations, and the National Narcotic Officers Associations, among others.
Toomey and Williams point out that their concern is not that Adegbile acted as an attorney for a criminal defendant. “The right to counsel is a fundamental part of America’s criminal justice system, and no lawyer should be faulted for the crimes of his clients.” But what Adegbile did was “to seize on a case and turn it into a political platform from which to launch an extreme attack on the justice system.”
Should a lawyer involved in such a project head up the most important civil rights office in the government, one that enforces, not incidentally, criminal civil rights laws? That is the unusual question the Adegbile nomination raises, and it’s one that deserves to be taken seriously by every member of the Senate.