Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) excoriated the Senate’s failure to confirm Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division on Wednesday, calling it the low point of his 30-year tenure. His nomination apparently tanked due to a campaign to discredit Adegbile based on his work fighting to overturn an unconstitutional death sentence for convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Seven Democrats helped block his confirmation.
Harkin argued the vote revealed a racist double standard, as no one had challenged the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court based on the rightfully uncontroversial fact that he had once represented a mass murderer pro bono.
“Here’s the message we sent today,” he said on the floor. “You young people listen up. If you are a young white person and you go to work for a law firm…and that law firm assigns you to a pro bono case to defend someone who killed 8 people in cold blood…My advice from what happened today is you should do that. As part of your legal obligation, as part of your profession. Because if you do that, who knows? You might wind up to be the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.”
But, Harkin continued, it’s now a different calculus for black lawyers. “If you’re a young black person and you work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and you’re asked to sign an appeal for someone convicted of murder, the message sent today is, don’t do it. Don’t do it,” the senator said. “Because you know what? if you do that, in keeping with your legal obligations and your profession, you will be denied by the U.S. Senate from being [an] attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice. I guess what I am saying is we sent a message we have a double standard. A terrible double standard.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) also blamed racism for the vote against Adegbile, pointing to several other black nominees who have been blocked by Republicans.
While the Democrats who opposed Adegbile did not give their reasons for doing so, one anonymous aide told the Washington Post it was to preserve their re-election prospects. “It’s a 30-second ad that writes itself,” the aide said.