The US Senate blocked President Obama’s nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.
Senators voted 47-52 yesterday in opposition to Debo Adegbile, a highly qualified attorney who worked in private practice at the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison before holding several leadership positions at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, including Director of Litigation, Acting President, Director-Counsel, and Special Counsel, and serving as senior counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee.
Adegbile is a voting rights expert. He has twice defended the Voting Rights Act before the US Supreme Court, including in Shelby County v. Holder, the case in which the Court, by a 5-4 vote, invalidated the preclearance formula – meant to protect against pervasive discrimination in voting – in Section 4 of the Act. The Civil Rights Division enforces the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws that protect the right to vote.
Those opposed to the Adegbile’s nomination claimed they were concerned about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal on an appeal during Adegbile’s tenure at the organization. Abu-Jamal was convicted of the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer and sentenced to death. After his conviction, NAACP LDF represented Abu-Jamal in an appeal focusing on the propriety of the sentencing instructions given to the jury. A federal court twice sided with Abu-Jamal, finding that his constitutional rights had been violated and commuting his sentence from death to life imprisonment.
President Obama issued a strong statement calling the failure of the Senate to approve Adegbile’s nomination “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant. Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable. He represents the best of the legal profession, with wide-ranging experience, and the deep respect of those with whom he has worked. His unwavering dedication to protecting every American’s civil and Constitutional rights under the law – including voting rights – could not be more important right now.”
Barbara Arnwine, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, commented that the Senate vote “reflects a larger and extremely troubling attack on civil rights taking place on the Senate floor and Capitol Hill. The day that a nominee of this caliber is blocked for supporting voting rights, diversity programs in higher education, and the equal protection of all citizens in the criminal justice system, signals a moment in our history that we as Americans must take a hard look at the direction we as a democracy are headed.”
Civil Rights groups also expressed concern about the Senate’s improper use of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case to defeat the nomination. “Today’s filibuster should concern every person who care about our justice system,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Every person deserves adequate legal representation. Our system won’t work if talented attorneys refuse to represent unpopular clients.”
Media Resources: Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law 3/5/14; Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights 3/5/14; Slate 3/5/14; The Washington Post 3/5/14, 11/14/13; The White House 3/5/14; Feminist Newswire 6/25/13