[Updated with statement from President Obama at the end of this post]
Today, Senate Republicans and Democrats voted to block President Obama’s pick for Justice Department Civil Rights Division head Debo Adegbile, the former lead attorney on voting rights for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). Republicans opposed him mostly because of his involvement as an LDF lawyer in the appeal for the imprisoned human rights activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. Adegbile’s assistance in that case consisted of helping file a brief claiming that the jury in Abu-Jamal’s trial — where he was convicted for killing a police officer — received improper instructions for their deliberations.
The judge in that case did find merit in that brief, but members of the U.S. Senate apparently did not. Many of the Republicans accused Adegbile of helping a "cop killer." National law enforcement associations encouraged the Senate to block Adegbile for the same reasons.
On top of that, seven Democrats joined with Republicans to block Adegbile on similar grounds, some of them afraid that a favorable vote would hurt their re-election chances this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, also voted against Adegbile, but only under a technical procedure so that he could bring Adegbile back up for a vote in the future.
"I believe that Republicans have distorted this good man’s record in an attempt to score political points and block confirmation of a faithful defender of voting rights," said Reid at the vote hearing today. "Republicans have not given this good man a fair shot at confirmation."
It was thought that Adegbile would have a smoother transition through the Senate thanks to a rule change sparked by Reid in November that would require only a simple majority vote (51 votes) for nominees to federal agencies, as opposed to the 60 votes that were needed in the past. But today’s obstruction was largely covered in racial animus, according to those present for the vote.
"Today’s vote demonstrated the worst elements of our political system," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Unhinged rhetoric trumped substance, racialized language triumphed over thoughtful discourse, and our legal and political system will pay the price. It’s hypocritical for Senators to claim to support civil rights enforcement and then turn their backs on our communities by voting against the consideration this nominee on his merits."
President Obama released this statement on the Senate’s failure to confirm Adegbile:
"The Senate’s failure to confirm Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice is a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant. Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable. He represents the best of the legal profession, with wide-ranging experience, and the deep respect of those with whom he has worked. His unwavering dedication to protecting every American’s civil and Constitutional rights under the law – including voting rights – could not be more important right now. And Mr. Adegbile’s personal story – rising from adversity to become someone who President Bush’s Solicitor General referred to as one of the nation’s most capable litigators – is a story that proves what America has been and can be for people who work hard and play by the rules. As a lawyer, Mr. Adgebile has played by the rules. And now, Washington politics have used the rules against him. The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice – and those who voted against his nomination denied the American people an outstanding public servant."