Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Travesty of Justice: Nominee To Enforce Civil Rights Rejected For Fighting For Justice

"The Senate’s failure to confirm Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice is a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks . . . . Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable. . . . His unwavering dedication to protecting every American’s civil and Constitutional rights under the law – including voting rights – could not be more important right now. . . 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 – and those who voted against his nomination denied the American people an outstanding public servant."  -- President Obama 

Debo Adegbile
In 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.  Abu-Jamal remained on death row for 30 years during an intensely fought battle in both the legal arena and public sphere which resulted in his death sentence being vacated.  Now almost 60 years old, Abu-Jamal is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Serious concerns remain about the fairness of Abu-Jamal's trial.  Some consider him a political prisoner.  On the other side, which includes Officer Faulkner's family and the Fraternal Order of Police, there continues to be outrage about the campaign to free Abu-Jamal as well as the fact that he was not executed.

No matter one's views about Abu-Jamal, about the case or the politics, or even about the death penalty, one issue should be uncontroversial -- that Abu-Jamal or any criminal defendant has the right to have an effective, zealous advocate, particularly when the case is a matter of life and death.  An important corollary, in my view, is that a lawyer's most  honorable role is to represent people who are hated and feared, and to ensure that the government is following the law.  (Here's an earlier piece, Crossing the Line, on prior attempts to smear lawyers who advocate for the despised.)

It is deeply distressing that the United States Senate just voted to reject Depo Adegbile, an otherwise sterling choice to run the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, because he headed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund when it represented Abu-Jamal in his fight for life.  Adegbile, who didn't personally work on Abu-Jamal's case, twice argued cases defending the Voting Rights Act before the U.S. Supreme Court, a far more relevant qualification for the job.

Sen. Patrick Leahy made the case that "the principle that all sides deserve an effective counsel is at the bedrock of our constitutional system” and “we cannot equate the lawyer with the conduct of those we represent if we want our justice system to endure."

Nevertheless, the Senate voted 52-47 to scuttle the nomination.

You can expect Republicans to vote against any Obama pick who would be supportive of civil rights enforcement.  As Sen. Dick Durbin put it, "I think the accusation is that the president is picking someone for the Division of Civil Rights who has been a leader in civil rights," and Republicans have “historically been troubled by … appointments [to the post] no matter who they are.” 

And you can expect Republicans to say stupid shit like what Sen. Lindsay Graham said:  “When someone has a history of helping cop-killers, this is what happens.”

But it was the Democrats who doomed Adegbile's chances, by pandering to the same simplistic pro-law enforcement, pro-prosecution sentiment as Senator Graham, effectively denigrating the importance of mounting a vigorous legal defense of a notorious defendant.

Pennsylvania Democrat, Bob Casey paid lip service to “respect[ing] that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime" but added the disturbing non sequitur that "it is important that we ensure that Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country have full confidence in their public representatives — both elected and appointed.”  Casey added that “The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the City of Philadelphia.”

Christopher Coons, a Democratic Senator from Delaware also claimed to understand, "as a lawyer . . . the importance of having legal advocates willing to fight for even the most despicable clients" and purported to "embrace the proposition that an attorney is not responsible for the actions of their client."  But he decided to cast his vote aganst Adegbile because of the "decade-long public campaign . . . to elevate a heinous, cold-blooded killer to the status of political prisoner and folk hero," a campaign that Adegbile, by the way, had nothing to do with.

According to this reasoning, it is critical for our legal system to ensure that all criminal defendants have effective advocates but a lawyer's representation of a particularly despicable client accused of a particularly despicable crime (such as killing a police officer) is a disqualifying factor for public office.  Or as Lindsay Graham put it, "this is what happens" when you help cop-killers.

In addition to Casey and Coons, other shameful Democrats included Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas. John Walsh of Montana, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

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