Commentary: The Senate’s Uncourageous Civil Rights Vote

By voting against Debo Adegbile’s nomination as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, the Senate denied the nation a fierce advocate.

Posted: 03/06/2014 11:47 AM EST
Commentary: The Senate’s Uncourageous Civil Rights Vote

It would be difficult to find a more knowledgeable or more passionate voice for civil rights than Debo Adegbile, who is a lawyer best known for his outstanding work with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. In one of the truly tragic moves by the United States Senate, Adegbile was blocked on Wednesday from being the head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department.

Members of the Senate including several Democrats caved in to pressure from conservative elements in the country who were outraged of Adegbile’s representation some years ago of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted for killing a police officer in Philadelphia.

Even before the vote, many senators received harsh letters and messages in social media criticizing President Obama’s selection for the position as a radical who defended a “cop killer.” Indeed, the specter of Abu-Jamal, who was convicted three decades ago, became far too polarizing for Democratic senators with conservative constituencies.

And that’s a great shame. For one thing, Adegbile’s work encompasses a far wider realm than his work on that one controversial case. He is known as one of the nation’s leading civil rights attorneys and advocates. He argued before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of extending the Voting Rights Act.

Adegbile, who is widely viewed as a leading civil rights attorney and advocate, was initially nominated in November and was nominated again for the position this year. He left the Legal Defense Fund and went to work as a senior counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But to several members of the Senate, the history with Abu-Jamal became the all-consuming issue, far more important than Adegbile's skill, his passion or his long history with defending civil rights.

The Abu-Jamal case has been reverberating in civil rights discussions for some time. Initially sentenced to death, his penalty was reduced to life in prison. He has steadfastly insisted upon his innocence and his fight to be released has become a cause supported by a large number of celebrities and civil rights advocates.

But no matter how one views the issue of Abu-Jamal, who views himself as a political prisoner, there is no question that, in the American system of justice, all defendants are entitled to representation. And Adegbile’s role was to provide just that, the basic foundation of what the American system of justice promotes as one of its important benchmarks.

And rather than celebrate the fact that there are bright and skilled attorneys to represent even the controversial defendants, these shameful Democrats used it as an ill-suited rationale for denying one of the finest nominations of the Obama administration. It is a sad moment for a Senate revealing a lack of courage and for the civil rights community in this country.

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(Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Photo, File)

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