Senate blocks Obama’s controversial pick to head Justice’s Civil Rights Division

BY Ruth Tam  March 5, 2014 at 2:20 PM EST
Debo Adegbile sits on a panel at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco in August, 2013 (photo by Flickr user Steve Rhodes).

Debo Adegbile sits on a panel at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco in August, 2013 (photo by Flickr user Steve Rhodes).

On Wednesday the U.S. Senate rejected Debo Adegbile, President Barack Obama’s nomination for Department of Justice assistant attorney general.

In a 47-52 vote, seven Democrats joined Republicans against Adegbile, who currently serves as Senior Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Adegbile has been under scrutiny for his involvement in the 1982 trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political radical convicted of shooting a Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner.

At the time of Abu-Jamal’s trial over 30 years ago, Adegbile provided legal counsel to the NAACP, which worked to overturn Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. The death sentence was removed before Adegbile entered the case but the contentious decision followed him to Washington, where Republicans focused on his emerging portrayal as a “cop killer.”

In the days before the confirmation hearing, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) led a campaign against Adegbile accusing his team of defense lawyers of distorting facts during the Abu-Jamal case. Toomey was also joined by the Fraternal Order of Police and the slain police officer’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, who circulated a petition of 21,106 signatures to reject Adegbile.

“The nominee inserted his office in an effort to turn reality on its head, impugn honorable and selfless law enforcement officers, and glorify an unrepentant cop-killer,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in Wednesday’s hearing. “This is not required by our legal system. On the contrary, it is noxious to it.”

Democrats who joined Republicans against the confirmation were Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), John Walsh (Mont.), Chris Coons (Del.) and Bob Casey (Pa.).

When it became clear the confirmation would not pass, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also changed his vote to nay, a procedure that will allow him to address the nomination again in a future vote. Because Adegbile didn’t actually defend Abu-Jamal, Reid held that the nominee was a victim of “guilt by association.”

Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Begich (Alaska), Democrats running for reelection in several vulnerable states, followed Reid.

In response, President Obama called the Senate’s block a “travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant.”

“As a lawyer, Mr. Adegbile has played by the rules. And now, Washington politics have used the rules against him,” the statement read.