Last month, the US Senate failed to invoke cloture on the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department after a right-wing smear campaign that attacked Adegbile for helping provide legal representation at the appellate level to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a convicted murderer, while working at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Every Senate Republican and seven Democrats voted to filibuster Adegbile’s nomination, effectively blocking the nomination and throwing out the window the constitutional ideal that all criminal defendants should have access to quality legal representation.
Last week, over one thousand law professors came together to publicly condemn the vote by writing a letter to the Senate where they explain the ramifications of the vote for law students, lawyers, and the legal profession as a whole. The letter – dated April 25, 2014 – states:
[W]e are deeply concerned that the vote and the rationale publicly articulated by a majority of Senators rejecting Mr. Adegbile sends a message that goes to several core values of the legal profession. These include the right to counsel, the importance of pro bono representation, and the importance of ensuring that constitutional protections are afforded to every criminal defendant regardless of the crimes for which they are accused.
As law teachers we are particularly concerned about the disquieting message conveyed to law students and graduates entering the profession who may fear that their engagement with pro bono representation of unpopular clients may imperil their future eligibility for federal government service.
…We believe that the criticism of Mr. Adegbile, based on his representation of a death row inmate, is unjust and inconsistent with the fundamental tenets of our profession. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the assistance of counsel to persons charged with crimes, and all accused defendants are entitled to zealous representation by competent counsel.
The highest calling of any lawyer is to ensure that the Constitution is applied fairly and in accordance with the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court to every defendant.
…The debate surrounding Mr. Adegbile’s confirmation also threatens to undermine the widely-recognized importance of lawyers providing pro bono representation to meet unmet legal needs. Providing representation to defendants on death row is among the most challenging, resource-intensive and critically important pro bono counsel a lawyer can provide. Lawyers engaged in this work should be commended rather than denounced for their hard-work and commitment to ensuring that the protections of the Constitution are extended even to those accused of heinous crimes.
…Finally, as every lawyer knows – including the 57 in the U.S. Senate – we are not our clients. The constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel would be turned on its head if the contrary view were advanced. Indeed, had past candidates for public office been held to the Senate’s unjust standard, our nation would have been deprived of the likes of President John Adams (who defended British soldiers charged with killing Americans in the Boston Massacre), Justice Thurgood Marshall (who defended countless black men on death row in the Jim Crow South), and Chief Justice John Roberts (who represented convicted serial killer John Errol Ferguson).
Simply put, the rule of law cannot succeed if attorneys are judged guilty by association with their clients. In rejecting a qualified nominee for public service based on conduct which reflects the best of our profession, the Senate has done a grave disservice to the legal profession and those who seek to enter it.
This week, People For the American Way sent a letter to every U.S. senator, urging them to confirm Debo Adegbile to head the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. Adegbile’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was this morning.
The letter [pdf] praises Adegbile’s civil rights record, which includes arguing two critical voting rights cases before the Supreme Court:
Because of its importance in enforcing laws eliminating barriers to equality and opportunity, the Civil Rights Division is a critical means by which Americans protect the promises and values of the United States Constitution. Among many other things, the Civil Rights Division is charged with helping to eliminate discrimination in employment, housing, and education. The Division also has the responsibility to protect the right to vote, which Thomas Paine rightly observed over 200 years ago is “the primary right by which other rights are protected.”
It is fitting, therefore, given the enormity of the Civil Rights Division’s responsibilities, that President Obama has nominated one of this generation’s preeminent civil rights litigators, the supremely qualified Debo Adegbile, to lead the Division. Adegbile’s career exemplifies a dedication to advancing the civil rights of all Americans. Before becoming senior counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he spent more than a decade in various leadership positions at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, overseeing civil rights litigation at both the trial and appellate level. As director of litigation, then as acting president, Adegbile not only developed expertise in the areas of education, economic justice, criminal justice, and nonpartisan political participation, he also exercised the type of significant administrative and leadership responsibilities that will serve the Civil Rights Division well. Firefighters, school custodians, public parks employees, and Katrina evacuees are just some of the ordinary people all across the nation whom Adegbile has helped.
Adegbile has special expertise in voting rights, and he has twice defended the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act before the United States Supreme Court. He also worked extensively on the 2005-2006 legislative effort to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, which led to overwhelming bipartisan majorities voting to renew the law in 2006.
Unfortunately, some conservative activists are opposing Adegbile’s nomination because they object to his civil rights record. We looked at some of those attacks over at Right Wing Watch today.