Racism’s at Root of Adegbile Denial

Racism in the Senate continues to weaken civil rights law enforcement.

By Brentin Mock Mar 10, 2014

There are many reasons why the Senate blocked former NAACP LDF attorney Debo Adegbile from becoming head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and none of them have anything to do with his qualifications. The surface reason for why Adegbile garnered not one vote from Senate Republicans, is because they associated him closely with Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther and MOVE activist who was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1982.

The unstated reason for why they blocked Adegbile’s nomination, as I wrote about at Policy Shop, has to do with a conservative agenda that seeks to strip enforcement powers away from our civil rights legal protections. 

Adam Serwer called it a "Republican war on civil rights laws" over at MSNBC.com. Meanwhile, NAACP LDF president Sherrilyn Ifill said in her op-ed in The Root that the failed nomination of Adegbile was "just another battlefield in the ongoing challenge to the legitimacy of our nation’s civil rights laws."

At least one Republican, though, Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, believes that he denied Adegbile on the grounds of upholding justice. According to Toomey, what disqualified Adegbile was his supervision of the LDF’s litigation department when it filed legal briefs arguing that the jury in Abu-Jamal’s trial were given improper instructions in the sentencing. In the video below, Sen. Toomey calls the day he voted to obstruct Adegbile’s nomination "a good day for the United States and for anybody who cares about integrity in our criminal justice system."

You know who else cared enough about the criminal justice system to file a legal brief in support of a man convicted of murder? The attorney John Roberts, who is today the Chief Justice of the United States. Before rising to that post, Roberts devoted hours free of charge to helping defend John Errol Ferguson, a man convicted of killing eight people in one of the most gruesome crimes in Florida’s history. This fact did not obstruct Roberts in his rise to become the senior justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

For Toomey, the problem with Adegbile isn’t just the briefs he helped file on Abu-Jamal’s sentencing. His beef is also with the NAACP LDF. That legal organization was founded by Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, and whose professional career was dedicated to fighting racism in American institutions. He founded LDF with the mission to continue that fight. But it’s this fight that has irked not only Toomey, but other Republicans in the Senate.

As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Toomey assembled a file on LDF that included statements and quotes from any staff member who dared to challenge racism in the criminal justice system. One of the people he seized upon was LDF attorney Christina Swams who said at an Abu-Jamal rally: "There is no question in the mind of anyone at the Legal Defense Fund that the justice system has completely and utterly failed Mumia Abu-Jamal and in our view, that has everything to do with race and that is why the Legal Defense Fund is in this case."

Senate Republicans grilled Adegbile about Swams comments though he was not at the rally when she made them. 

At the time, LDF was filing the briefs in question to have Abu-Jamal’s death sentence overturned due to improper jury instructions. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld this argument twice, leading ultimately to Abu-Jamal’s removal from death row and given a life sentence. Toomey referred to this successful appeal as a "mockery of our justice system," in the Inquirer and indicted Adegbile for his participation in it. 

When Toomey shared parts of his anti-Adegbile file with the Inquirer, the newspaper reported that "[n]one of the information they provided cited direct comments or actions by Adegbile."

But that didn’t stop Toomey from distributing the file, padded with comments about "racism," from anyone within six degrees of Adegbile, and members of the Judiciary Committee, and also to police unions like the Fraternal Order of Police, before the vote on his nomination. The FOP had already been actively lobbying against Adegbile’s approval, and Toomey makes sure to thank them in the video above.

Again, while Toomey’s campaign was orchestrated around tensions concerning Abu-Jamal, the co-benefit for Republicans of blocking Adegible was that it was another dent registered in the armor of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A huge blow was delivered to civil rights protections last summer when conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court stripped the Voting Rights Act of one of its key provisions.

Ifill points out that Republicans’ beef with the Civil Rights Division stretches back farther than that. They forced President Clinton to withdraw lauded civil rights professor Lani Guinier from consideration when he nominated her for the role. They applied extra vilification to current Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick when Clinton nominated him in the 1990s as well. Ditto for civil rights Bill Lan Lee, who was officially confirmed during a recess appointment when the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to advance him. 

All three were LDF attorneys cut from the civil rights cloth of Thurgood Marshall. But Republicans today appear more dedicated to the fabric that preserves racism’s dye rather than lawyers like Adegbile working to see racism die. 

The Senate’s denial of Adegbile registered negative reactions from a variety of organizations representing multiple strands of civil rights advocacy. Asian Americans Advancing Justice called it a "travesty of justice," stating "It’s clear that politics were in play when Mr. Adegible’s nomination was blocked simply because he provided an American his constitutional right of having a lawyer… Punishing those who take an oath to uphold the law for granting that representation mocks the very foundation on which this country was built."

From the National Partnership for Women and Families: "At a time when gender- and race-based wage discrimination persist, when complaints of pregnancy discrimination are on the rise, and when women and men of color too often are denied opportunities to advance their careers, confirming a fair and tireless advocate should have been an easy call and a top priority for every senator."

Despite Toomey’s declaration, these organizations also care about the integrity of the criminal justice system; they just serve an agenda that seeks to fight discrimination, not preserve it.