Debo Adegbile is one of the most qualified people in the country to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A former acting head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile is a leading expert on voting rights who twice defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court. Yet Adegbile has now formally abandoned his bid to lead this office six months after it was thwarted by a bloc of Republicans and seven Democrats who protested the fact that the nominee to be the nation’s top civil rights attorney once worked to defend the civil rights of an unpopular Pennsylvania inmate.
Instead of working at DOJ, Adegbile will join the high-powered law firm WilmerHale as a partner.
Widespread Republican opposition to Adegbile was probably inevitable, given his many years working for the NAACP LDF. LDF not only supports a number of policies that Republicans have long opposed, such as affirmative action, but Adegbile specializes in a field where Republicans have recently grown quite hostile to the views of the civil rights community — voting rights. It was the Supreme Court’s five Republican members who struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, despite Adegbile’s efforts to defend the law before the justices.
Since then, a number of leading Republicans have opposed a bill seeking to restore many of the voting rights lost due to this Court decision. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said the bill is “clearly unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s precedents.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) accused the Justice Department of using the Voting Rights Act to protect “the ability to elect Democrats.” And Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said that “the justification no longer exists” for much of the Voting Rights Act.
Yet, while the GOP’s opposition to Adegbile was expected, the opposition he received from seven Democratic senators was much more surprising. Adegbile was the victim of a campaign to punish him for believing that civil rights belong to anyone who is accused of a crime, regardless of how serious the crime is or how widely reviled the accused may be. In 2008, a federal appeals court unanimously held — with two Reagan appointees joining the decision — that a convicted cop killer named Mumia Abu-Jamal was unconstitutionally sentenced to die. Adegbile was one of several LDF attorneys who signed a brief urging this court to overturn this death sentence.
In the United States, an unconstitutional death sentence is invalid. Yet the Fraternal Order of Police attacked Adegbile in a statement which suggested that particularly notorious criminals are not entitled to constitutional rights, and that lawyers who take their side should face professional consequences as well. “There is no disputing that Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner was murdered by this thug,” according to the FOP. “His just sentence — death — was undone by [Adegbile] and others like him who turned the justice system on its head with unfounded and unproven allegations of racism.”
If this logic were applied to the legal system as a whole, it would undermine the basic constitutional principle that all people accused of a crime are entitled to legal representation. Nevertheless, the campaign against Adegbile proved quite successful. Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Mark Pryor (D-AR) and John Walsh (D-MT) joined most of their Republican colleagues in opposing his nomination. Ironically, just one hour after she voted to deny confirmation to the lawyer who defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court, Sen. Heitkamp sent a fundraising email warning that “the right to vote” is “under attack.”
The unfortunate lesson of this vote is that ambitious lawyers should avoid unpopular clients if they want to keep their career options open. Although civil rights advocates held out some hope that the Senate would hold another vote on Adegbile’s nomination after the election, those hopes now appear to be dashed. It’s not clear who the White House will now nominate to fill the job they originally intended to go to Adegbile, or whether this new civil rights nominee will be disqualified because they believe in civil rights.