The nomination of Voting Rights Act champion Debo Adegbile to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division signifies the White House’s desire to safeguard the landmark anti-discrimination legislation.
It also signifies the Obama administration’s willingness to engage in a political battle with conservatives over what legal experts have termed a “lightning rod” position.
If confirmed, Adegbile would replace Tom Perez, himself no stranger to being the subject of partisan ire. Perez, the previous Assistant Attorney General for the division, departed for the Labor Department in July, narrowly winning Senate confirmation by a 54-46 vote with all Republicans in opposition.
“The position is always a lightning rod. But I think it will be hard to find legitimate grounds to oppose him,” said Samuel Bagenstos, former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division.
What may draw the most criticism this time around is likely one of Adegbile’s greatest professional achievements — arguing before the Supreme Court on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Shelby County v. Holder, a case which turned on the constitutionality of a key section of the Voting Rights Act that Congress had used for more than 40 years to identify states and localities subject to oversight of their election procedures.
“This statute is in part about our march through history to keep promises that our Constitution says for too long were unmet,” Adegbile told the justices during oral arguments in February.
In a defeat for the Justice Department and the NAACP, a divided Supreme Court in June struck down Section 4 of the 1965 act. Section 5 requires states and localities with a history of discrimination to pre-clear any changes with the Justice Department while Section 4 sets forth the formula used to determines which states and localities will fall under Section 5.
Attorney General Eric Holder called the decision “a serious setback for voting rights” and vowed that the Justice Department would continue to enforce the landmark civil rights legislation, including using Section 3 of the law, which allows federal courts to place certain jurisdictions under pre-clearance for new voting laws if they have shown a pattern of intentional discrimination.
He also said he directed the Civil Rights Division to shift its resources to the enforcement of a number of federal voting laws not impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision.
Holder said the Justice Department will continue monitoring jurisdictions around the country for changes, which threaten these voting rights and will take “appropriately aggressive action against any jurisdiction that attempts to hinder free and fair access to the franchise.”
In August, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to require Texas to receive federal approval before changing its voting laws.
But it’s up to Congress to address making changes to the law and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has been outspoken in saying he intends to restore the protections.
This summer he got some help when Adegbile left the NAACP to become senior counsel to Judiciary Committee — which is now charged with taking up his nomination.
“This year, when I considered who to hire to work on the next voting rights legislation, I could think of no one more qualified or experienced than Debo,” Leahy said in a statement yesterday following Adegbile’s nomination.
The chairman also highlighted Adegbile’s “reputation for working to bring members from both sides of the aisle together.” This will come in handy when he appears before the committee later this year or early next.
At the moment, Republicans aren’t saying much. The office of ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) did not return Main Justice’s request for comment and the senator has not reacted publicly to the nomination.
Not surprisingly, he has been embraced by members of the civil rights community of which he used to be a member.
“This is a great pick, and exactly the kind of person to re-energize DOJ Civil Rights,” said civil rights attorney Lynne Bernabei.
He’s also a welcomed choice to some of his DOJ predecessors.
“Debo has all the qualities to be an excellent head of the Civil Rights Division. He is a talented lawyer, an experienced leader and a strong advocate for civil rights,” said William Yeomans, a fellow in law and government at American University’s Washington College of Law, who spent 26 years at the Justice Department where he served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General, chief of staff and acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.