Debo Adegbile, President Obama's nominee to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, was rejected by the Senate earlier this week. This is a dismaying vote, a combination of Republicans increasingly hostile to civil rights and a small but crucial number of Democratic senators too timorous to stand up to Republican smear campaigns.
The primary ostensible basis for the rejection of the eminently qualified Adegbile was his small role in the legal defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal was convicted for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer, and as Michael McGough says it's fair to say that Abu-Jamal has been "the beneficiary of uncritical adulation and a form of 'radical chic'" from some activists and celebrities both home and abroad. Certainly, Abu-Jamal is not my idea of a hero, but this is all irrelevant to Adegbile. He wasn't spending his time leading "Free Mumia" rallies or defending the murder of police officers. He simply part of the team at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund (LDF) that participated in an appeal of Abu-Jamal's death sentence. The LDF has been at the forefront of constitutional challenges to the death penalty for decades; there was nothing remotely unusual or improper about Adegbile's actions. And nor was this a frivolous constitutional challenge—a unanimous Third Circuit panel including two Republican appointees found Abu-Jamal's death sentence unconstitutional.
According to a letter written by Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the slain officer, "I would argue that Mr. Adegbile's decision to defend a cop killer should preclude him from holding any public position." One can forgive Faulkner for saying this given her loss, but for members of the United States Senate—many of whom are lawyers—to publicly endorse this transparently dangerous and irresponsible position is a disgrace. Everyone, including Mumia Abu-Jamal, is entitled to a fair trial an a competent defense of their constitutional rights. To equate a defense counsel with the defendant is not only grossly unfair guilt-by-association, it would essentially make criminal defense impossible.
Admittedly, for the Republicans who voted against Adegbile, Abdul-Jamal was probably pretext rather than cause—I very much doubt that many if any Republican senators actually believe that lawyers are guilty of the sins of those they defend. The real issue with Adegbile is that he would act to robustly defend civil rights, something contemporary Republicans oppose. After all, this isn't the first time Republicans have delayed or defeated a nominee to head the civil rights division who they suspect of actually wanting to enforce civil rights. "Between them, Presidents Clinton and Obama have nominated five people to head the Division," observes Samuel Bagenstos of the University of Michigan Law School. "Only two were confirmed (Deval Patrick and Tom Perez). Of the other three, one had to withdraw under pressure (Lani Guinier), one received a recess appointment after his confirmation was stalled for more than two years (Bill Lann Lee), and one was defeated yesterday."
In other words, the extraordinary stupid arguments that Republican Senators raised about Abu-Jamal shouldn't be allowed to conceal their real agenda: kneecapping federal efforts to do things like protect voting rights, address police brutality, oppose employment discrimination. The Republican rejection of Adegbile is of a piece with a broader anti-civil rights agenda, such as their ongoing efforts to suppress the vote of racial minorities and the poor and a bare majority of the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act based on incoherent arguments with no basis in the text of the Constitution.
So Republican opposition to Adegbile was, while reprehensible, easily explicable. But Democrats control the Senate, and nominees like Adegbile can no longer be filibustered—he lost on a straight up-or-down vote. So it's worth directing particular ire at the 7 Democratic senators who joined the Republican war on civil rights. Five of these votes at least came from senators from states that voted for Romney, an explanation if not an excuse. Particularly worthy of scorn are the two blue-state senators, Pennsylvania's Bob Casey Jr. and Delaware's Chris Coons. Casey's stated justification for his nay vote was frankly embarrassing:
I respect that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime. At the same time, it is important that we ensure that Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country have full confidence in their public representatives — both elected and appointed. The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the City of Philadelphia.
So defendants have a right to a defense, but a lawyer participating in this defense cannot have the "full confidence" of the public? If a teacher was trying to explain the concept of a "non-sequitur" to their students I'm not sure they could come up with a better example. And worse, it's a non-sequitur that's subversive of the rule of law.
Senate Republicans are going to do anything they can to inhibit federal civil rights enforcement, up to and including cynical, demagogic campaigns against dedicated public servants. But for 7 Democrats to join the mob is an act of cowardice contrary to the values that the head of the Civil Rights Division is supposed to uphold. To reject the a nominee to head the Civil Rights division because ... of his successful support for civil rights is a cruel irony indeed.