Obama calls Senate rejection of his civil rights nominee 'a travesty'

Eight Democratic senators joined Republicans to vote down Debo Adegbile, President Obama's nominee for head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, because of his connection to the infamous Mumia Abu-Jamal 'cop-killer' case.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
Debo Adegbile, then an attorney with the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the NAACP, speaks outside the Supreme Court in Washington in this 2009 file photo. Mr. Adegbile, an Obama nominee to the Justice Department, failed a Senate test vote.

Senators from both parties on Wednesday rejected President Obama’s nominee for head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, following a discussion on the Senate floor that repeatedly returned to the nominee’s association with a notorious “cop-killer” case.

Debo Adegbile, a former director at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, was briefly involved in the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner some 32 years ago. Mr. Adegbile joined the case 25 years after Mr. Abu-Jamal’s conviction, when the NAACP handled an appeal to overturn Abu-Jamal’s death sentence.

It was the first time that the Senate has blocked one of Mr. Obama’s nominees since Democrats amended filibuster rules in November. The rule change allows a simple majority to confirm the president’s picks instead of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

But in this case, Democrats joined Republicans in nixing Obama’s nomination, with eight voting against Adegbile, putting the final vote at 47 to 52.

Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania said in a statement after the vote that he was respecting the sentiments of Pennsylvania law enforcement in voting against Adegbile.

"The vote I cast today was one of the most difficult I have taken since joining the Senate, but I believe it to be right for the people I represent,” he said.

Other Democratic "no" votes came from: Chris Coons of Delaware, Mark Pryor of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, John Walsh of Montana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Senator Manchin told Politico that he had made a “conscientious decision” to vote no, following a “long conversation” with the murdered police officer’s widow.

Majority leader Harry Reid (D) also voted no, but for procedural reasons. The "no" vote allows him to bring the nomination back to the floor if he chooses.

Before the vote, law enforcement agencies and Republican lawmakers had for months launched a tightly choreographed campaign to block Adegbile's nomination, drawing attention to his involvement in the Abu-Jamal trial, a controversial one that had unfolded against the backdrop of roiling racial tensions in 1981 Philadelphia and that had culled global attention for the conversations it fueled about racial bias in the courtroom.  

In a January letter to Obama, The National Fraternal Order of Police had called Adegbile a defender of the US's "most notorious-cop killer," alleging that Obama's nominee had "undone" Abu-Jamal's "just" death sentence and "turned the justice system on its head with unfounded and unproven allegations of racism." The group also called the nomination a "thumb in the eye of our nation's law enforcement."

Republican lawmakers’ comments on the floor echoed those complaints. 

“In this case, 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,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, according to The New York Times.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania also said on the floor that Adegbile's nomination was not “consistent with justice for the family of officer Danny Faulkner or for anyone else that cares about the law enforcement community,” according to Politico.

Democrat lawmakers had pleaded that Adegbile’s association with Abu-Jamal not upset his nomination, arguing that impugning Adegbile for his role in the appeal was tantamount to arguing that US criminals are not entitled to legal representation.

“Whether it is John Adams or John Roberts, the principle that all sides deserve an effective counsel is at the bedrock of our constitutional system,” said Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, according to The New York Times.

“We cannot equate the lawyer with the conduct of those we represent if we want our justice system to endure,” he said.

Obama said in a statement Wednesday that the Senate’s vote was “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant.”

“The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice,” he said.

Abu-Jamal is serving a life sentence in southwestern Pennsylvania.

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