Civil Rights, Other Legal Battles

Defender of rights, not murderers

Debo P. Adegbile is not a household name. After what happened to him in the United States Senate, he may never be.

Born and raised in New York, Adegbile, a lawyer, was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The Senate rejected his nomination.

Adegbile’s capital sin: Defending a murderer.

When he worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile represented Mumia Abu-Jamal, a man convicted and sentenced to the death penalty for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. In life and politics, those who kill police officers are not well-liked.

But under the Senate’s reasoning, lawyers who defend such clients also are not well-liked.

Adegbile’s defense, it should be noted, had nothing to do with claiming innocence for Abu-Jamal; the jury had already convicted him. Adegbile represented him after he had been sentenced to die. He argued that the sentencing judge made a procedural error that violated his client’s constitutional rights.

Why did the Legal Defense Fund get involved? Because the death penalty, historically, has been applied disproportionately to more blacks than whites. The organization decided to appeal the sentence because racial considerations may never factor into the conviction phase in a criminal case. Never. (Two appeals courts, in 2008 and 2011, sided with the Legal Defense Fund.)

The law notwithstanding, the Senate was moved by a choir of senators who branded Adegbile a “defender of murderers”—or worse, a cop killer advocate—and ultimately rejected his nomination to a federal office charged with protecting civil rights. Precisely for defending someone’s civil rights.

What the Senate did is not only unheard-of, but it sets a terrible precedent, for a number of reasons.

First, because everyone has constitutional rights, among them the right to be represented by an attorney in a criminal case. In rejecting Adegbile for representing an unpopular client—also endowed with rights—the Senate dealt a slap in the face to lawyers who represent those society deems undeserving. But the beauty of the Constitution is that it is not a respecter of persons. Everyone is entitled to zealous and meaningful representation, no matter the crime—even the murder of a police officer.

Second, the Senate dealt a blow to public service. Being a civil-rights lawyer or a public defender is not as lucrative as being a corporate lawyer. Defending a Latino accused of stealing a bicycle is less lucrative than defending a Wall Street banker accused of stealing millions.

The very chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, once defended a serial murderer. The big difference between Roberts and Adegbile is that the former did so while working for a white-shoe law firm—the kind that defends Wall Street executives—while Adegbile defended Abu-Jamal as an LDF attorney. But of the two, only Roberts was blessed with Senate confirmation.

Lastly, Adegbile’s rejection by the Senate shows the power conservative news media wields in sowing fear in Congress and the public. Because no matter how sterling Adegbile’s résumé, the very fact of defending an unpopular client brought a wave of criticism by Fox News and its allies. All of it has been discredited as irrelevant or not based in fact.

You need a special kind of person to become a lawyer to the least fortunate, the outcasts, those people. When a branch of government calls into question that noble calling, even fewer aspirants will be led to choose that path.

And forget about aspiring to a presidential nomination. The chances are almost nonexistent.

(A version of this column was originally published in Spanish in the print and online editions of New York’s El Diario.)

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