With support from several members of his own party, President Obama was delivered a crushing blow Wednesday when the US Senate rejected his nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Seven Democrats joined with Republicans in a vote of 47-52 to block the confirmation of Debo Adegbile, a former official of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who GOP legislators deemed unfit because of his representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a prominent African American activist who was convicted of the 1981 murder of a police officer in Philadelphia.
The president issued a furious statement in reaction to the vote. “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,” Obama said. “Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable…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.”
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) countered, telling reporters that Adegbile “has a long record of left wing advocacy marked by ideologically driven positions and very, very poor judgment.”
The vote marked the first time one of his nominees had been scuttled since Senate rules were changed to allow such presidential picks to be confirmed by a simple majority vote as a means of overcoming Republican stalling tactics.
The eight senators who broke party ranks were Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnolly of Indiana, John Walsh of Montana and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, claiming that he voted against the nomination so he could gain consideration at a later date.
Adegbile’s nomination created a firestorm on Capitol Hill in which civil rights leaders clashed with the law enforcement community due to his involvement in the high-profile, racially-charged Abu-Jamal case. The Legal Defense Fund helped overturn the former radio journalist’s original death sentence for the murder of Philadelphia officer Daniel Faulkner.
In 2009, Adegbile filed a court brief arguing Abu-Jamal – a former president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists who had been described as “perhaps the world’s best known death-row inmate” by The New York Times – was sentenced by a discriminatory jury. In turn, the judge cited that the appeal had merit. The nominee also served on the legal team that represented Abu-Jamal when prosecutors again sought the death penalty. Abu-Jamal’s original sentence was the death penalty which was commuted to life imprisonment without parole in 2012.
With the backing of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the GOP engaged in a relentless campaign to obstruct the confirmation process. In fact, shortly before the vote, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) read from a letter written by the widow of the police officer stating that “old wounds have once again been ripped open and additional insult is brought upon our law enforcement community in this country by President Obama’s nomination of Debo Agdegbile.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) came to the defense of Adegbile, a son of immigrants who rose from poverty and homelessness in the Bronx to argue voting rights cases twice before the Supreme Court and serve as an aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy also rebuked the Republicans for their hypocritical law-and-order stance since he could not gain any GOP support on additional federal funding for bullet-proof vests.
Reportedly, Coons was the only Democrat to comment on his nay vote, maintaining that he was “troubled by the idea of voting for an Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights who would face such visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on the job.”
Prominent civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton responded by issuing a statement chiding the defectors who voted with Republicans as being “guilty of a betrayal that should not go unanswered.”
Echoing the sentiments of many civil rights leaders, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Human Rights, said: “Today’s vote demonstrated the worst elements of our political system. Unhinged rhetoric trumped substance, racialized language triumphed over thoughtful discourse, and our legal and political system will pay the price.”