Debo Adegbile (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- The U.S. Senate narrowly defeated President Obama's
nominee to oversee the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division due to
Republican and law enforcement objections to the role he played in the
defense of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In a statement,
Obama called the defeat a "travesty based on wildly unfair character
attacks against a good and qualified public servant."
senators, all Democrats, voted to advance Debo Adegbile's nomination
while 52 senators voted to block him, including 7 Democrats. Vice
President Biden presided over the vote in the event he could break a
tie, which was unnecessary after Democrats failed to muster enough
support. Obama said "those who voted against his nomination denied the
American people an outstanding public servant."
voting to block the nomination were Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North
Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, John Walsh of Montana, Joe
Donnelly of Indiana, Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Mark Pryor of
Arkansas and Chris Coons of Delaware. Coons, Pryor, and Walsh all face
re-election this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also
voted against the nomination in the end, but only for procedural reasons
that will allow him to bring it up again if he so chooses.
defeat occurred even after Senate Democrats last year unilaterally
changed the Senate rules on judicial and executive nominations to lower
the threshold from 60 to a simple majority of votes to end a filibuster.
He is the first Obama nominee to lose on the floor over Democratic
Democrats, lawyers groups and civil rights activists
hailed Adegbile as one of the nation's leading civil rights attorneys
with impeccable credentials honed over two decades in the profession. He
has worked as an aide in the U.S. Senate as well as the NAACP Legal
Defense and Education Fund and has argued two civil rights cases on
voting rights before the Supreme Court.
"There is no question about his competence," said Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., prior to the vote.
his nomination prompted fierce backlash from the law enforcement
community because he once worked on the defense team of Abu-Jamal, who
was convicted for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police office Daniel
Faulkner. Adegbile was part of the NAACP legal team that is partly
credited with commuting Abu-Jamal's death sentence.
statement, Coons said he did not doubt Adegbile's qualifications but
that he could not overcome concerns about his ability to do the job. "I
was troubled by the idea of voting for an Assistant Attorney General for
Civil Rights who would face such visceral opposition from law
enforcement on his first day on the job," he said, "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."
on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted that
Adegbile's work on the case began 25 years after the murder occurred and
credited Adegbile's work on protecting constitutional rights. "He's a
fine man, what a story of the American Dream. He's devoted his life to
public service," Reid said.
Faulkner's widow, Maureen, lobbied
senators to oppose the nomination. "Old wounds have once again been
ripped open and additional insult is brought upon our law enforcement
community in this country by President Obama's nomination of Debo
Adegbile," she wrote in an emotional letter, "Certainly there are others
with similar qualifications that would be better choices. I would argue
that Mr. Adegbile's decision to defend a cop killer should preclude him
from holding any public position."
The Philadelphia Inquirer,
which exhaustively covered Abu-Jamal''s conviction and appeals,
strongly disagreed in a Tuesday editorial. "To argue that Adegbile, one
of the country's foremost legal scholars - especially when it comes to
civil rights law - should be disqualified from the Justice post because
he participated in Abu-Jamal's appeals is an affront to what it means to
live in America. This country allows every convict to exhaustively
appeal a verdict, even when all the prior evidence appears to have
assured his guilt."
A New York City native, Adegbile, 47, spent nine years in the 1970's as a child actor on Sesame Street.
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