In early March, 2014, Debo P. Adegbile’s nomination to head the U. S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was rejected by a 47-52 vote of the Senate. Though the majority of his opposition came from Republicans, he was also rejected by 7 Democratic Senators. The high-pitched debate about that rebuff continues for several reasons. An accurate analysis of the situation requires a review of facts commencing in 1972, when Adegbile was all of 6 years old. In that year, a radical black movement called “MOVE” was established in Philadelphia with a philosophy that encouraged violence against the police. In 1981, a MOVE supporter known as Mumia Abu-Jamal murdered Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner during a traffic stop and became one of MOVE’s heroes. Officer Faulkner’s initial actions were not even directed at Mumia Abu-Jamal. Actually, Officer Faulkner stopped Abu-Jamal’s brother, who was allegedly driving a taxi the wrong way on a one-way street. After the stop, Mumia Abu-Jamal inserted himself into the situation and murdered Officer Faulkner.
The murder of Officer Faulkner is one of the most notorious in U. S. history, as: Officer Faulkner was shot in the back and then, as the officer lay bleeding, was shot 4 more times; 4 eyewitnesses identified Abu-Jamal as the killer; 2 witnesses in the hospital testified that Abu-Jamal not only confessed but repeatedly stated that he hoped the Officer would die; Abu-Jamal’s case became a cause célèbre and his supporters attempted to put the U. S. Justice system on trial as racist; Abu-Jamal disrupted his trial proceedings to such an extent that he was removed from the courtroom more than 10 times; Abu-Jamal was found guilty and sentenced to death; his appeals have extended 30+ years beyond his conviction; his death sentence was voided in 2008 on the ground of faulty jury instructions and Abu-Jamal now serves a life sentence without the possibility of parole; Abu-Jamal continues to protest his innocence, with the support of some very famous folks.
In 2009, while Debo P. Adegbile was president and director of litigation at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the Fund began acting as Abu-Jamal’s counsel and continued the media campaign begun and sustained by Abu-Jamal’s supporters. In addition, in 2011, Adegbile’s co-counsel stated that Abu-Jamal’s conviction was race-based and that “fact” was the reason for the Legal Defense Fund’s involvement in his case. Furthermore, in 2012, though Abu-Jamal’s appeals were exhausted and the District Attorney chose not to further pursue the death penalty, the Legal Defense Fund announced on its web site that it would continue to explore ways to challenge Abu-Jamal’s conviction. In sum, with Adegbile at the helm, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund embraced the racial lightening rod that this case became.
In 2014, now a senior counsel for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Adegbile was nominated by the Obama Administration to head the U. S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. During confirmation hearing questioning about the case and whether he supports the “racist police conspiracy” theory of Abu-Jamal’s defense, Adegbile repeatedly avoided directly answering, stating that he was not the lead attorney on the case. Thereafter, his nomination was rejected by a 47-52 vote of the Senate, largely due to his association with Abu-Jamal, and the debate was on.
Some are dismayed by Adegbile’s rejection because of the ramifications it supposedly has for attorneys. Our criminal justice system is adversarial and relies on skilled advocates for both sides of a case. Consequently, Canon 7 of the American Bar Association’s Code of Professional Ethics states that a lawyer is ethically bound to represent his/her client “zealously within the bounds of the law.” If a client’s cause is unpopular or even hated, a lawyer is still duty-bound to ably represent that client’s interests. Consequently, the argument goes, the Senate’s rejection of Adegbile based on his prior representation of Abu-Jamal is an attack on a lawyer who was merely doing his job and on the justice system itself. A lawyer who represents a criminal is not the criminal; he/she is just doing exactly what a lawyer is supposed to do. Therefore, the rejection of Adegbile could discourage any attorneys intending to eventually seek higher public office from representing clients as they should. Furthermore, Adegbile’s backers argue that discouraging zealous representation will make it even harder to find already-scarce lawyers willing to pursue the appeals of death row prisoners, which will cause death row inmates to linger even longer before their appeals can be brought and decided. This would harm not only the inmates but also the justice system and taxpayers because it will create even more backlog and expense as inmates languish for years while awaiting representation on their death penalty appeals.
Those who agree with the rejection of Adegbile state that his legal representation of Abu-Jamal was not the factor in his rejection; rather, it was Adegbile’s activism – apart from legal representation – for a racially political cause that condemns the U. S. Justice System and the Philadelphia Police Department as racist while trumpeting the cause of a convicted cop killer to further their own agenda. Furthermore, even if he did not find Adegbile’s activism personally repugnant, Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) stated that Adegbile’s appointment was opposed by several law enforcement agencies and that Adegbile would encounter “visceral opposition from law enforcement.” The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is deemed “the conscience of the federal government”; consequently, Adegbile’s racially activist leadership would cause considerable problems for the work of that Division. Meanwhile, Adegbile’s backers counter the “activism” argument by stating that if activism disqualifies people from holding public office, there would be precious few capable public servants because a high percentage of people going into public service do so out of an activist’s desire to make a difference and/or support a cause. The vigorous debate caused by Adegbile’s nomination and eventual rejection reflects several legitimately deep competing interests. Furthermore, the debate shows no signs of abating, as it reaches far beyond the 30-year-old murder of a Philadelphia traffic cop who stopped a car for going the wrong way down a one-way street.
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