On the eve of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation vote, supporters of Debo Adegbile have called him a near perfect choice to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, though opponents have tried to cast him as a radical figure outside the political mainstream.
Adegbile has been lauded for his qualifications, particularly his defense of the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court, and civil rights experts say his nomination shows the Obama administration looking for a strong figure to continue its fight to support portions of the law not struck down in June.
The nominee is controversial, though, and he has been called both a bi-partisan leader and a radical, with both sides taking evidence from his record as an attorney and leader at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which helped lead the charge in support of the Voting Rights Act.
“I’m sure there are some people that are very concerned that he’s going to be a very effective leader of the Civil Rights Division,” William Yeomans, a former acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division told Main Justice.
The high-profile case shows that he has the right background for the job, said Yeomans, who is now a fellow in law and government at American University’s Washington College of Law. But some conservatives have lined up against the statute, which requires jurisdictions with a history of racial prejudice to get federal clearance to change to voting laws.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the law, which gives criteria on when jurisdictions need federal clearance for law changes.
Adegbile has also been blasted by his opponents because of the Legal Defense Fund’s defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
The Legal Defense Fund filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court on Abu-Jamal’s behalf, focusing on the fairness of the death penalty and racial discrimination in jury selection. Adegbile told the Senate Judiciary Committee that a commitment to the Constitution requires a commitment to following procedural rules “perhaps especially in those hardest cases.”
Adegbile joined the Legal Defense Fund in 2001 and rose up the ranks until he was made acting president in 2012. In that time, he has represented families facing foreclosure, battered woman and victims of Hurricane Katrina, Henderson said.
In a sharply-worded letter to Obama, the Fraternal Order of the Police condemned Adegbile’s nomination.
“This nomination can be interpreted in only one way; it is a thumb in the eye of our nation’s law enforcement,” the Jan. 6 letter said.
Earlier this week, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said Adegbile’s involvement in the Abu-Jamal case raises “serious questions” about his commitment to justice and ability to serve as Assistant Attorney General.
“I do not believe that Mr. Adegbile demonstrated such a commitment in his handling of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case,” Toomey said in a statement.
Despite criticism, Adegbile is likely to pass through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is stacked 10-8 in favor of Democrats. Adegible is currently senior counsel for Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont).
In a call today with reporters, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called Adegbile one of the “preeminent” civil rights attorneys of his generation and highlighted his representation of police offices and firefighters in civil rights cases.
“The head of the Civil Rights Division is far too important a position to allow substance to be hijacked by unhinged rhetoric,” Henderson said.
And not all police officers align with the criticism by the Fraternal Order of Police.
John Dixon, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and chief of police for Petersburg, Va. said today Adegbile’s qualifications are clear and called the attacks on him “unnecessary.”
On the call, Dixon said he encourages law enforcement to look at Adegbile’s record and “filter through the unnecessary attacks.”
Aside from his own past, Adegbile is also controversial in part because of the Civil Rights Division’s own history of politicization.
In a March report, the Inspector General detailed turmoil at the Civil Rights Division under the Bush and Obama administrations. Politicalization during under President George W. Bush had been well publicized, and the report identified efforts by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009 to push out then-Voting Section chief Christopher Coates over his stance on reverse discrimination cases.
Henderson today called parts of the report overblown because trouble started before Obama’s election. Adegbile, he said, has a history of working across party lines while fighting for civil rights.
“Debo is now in a position to start with a fresh hand,” Henderson said.
Joining Henderson today in support of Adegbile were leaders from the American Association of People with Disabilities, LatinoJustice and the National Women’s Law Center.
The committee will vote on his confirmation at a hearing set for 10 a.m. tomorrow. He must then pass muster in the Senate to be named division chief.