Eight Senate Democrats on Wednesday helped vote down President Barack Obama’s controversial nominee to become assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
The vote against Debo Adegbile clearly infuriated Obama. It was the first time one of his nominees failed to be confirmed since the Senate rules changed to allow nominees to be confirmed by simple majority vote last November. Since Democrats control the Senate, this change, known as the “nuclear option,” was expected to forge a clear path for Obama’s nominees.
“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 against a good and qualified public servant,” Obama said in an angry written statement sent out Wednesday. “Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable. He represents the best of the legal profession, with wide-ranging experience, and the deep respect of those with whom he has worked. 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.”
Eight Senate Democrats joined Republicans in voting against Adegbile — Sens. Chris Coons (Del.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Joe Donnolly (Ind.), John Walsh (Mont.), and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). Reid voted against the nomination to be able to bring it up for consideration again at a later date.
Adegbile’s nomination came under intense scrutiny because of his history as a legal counsel on the NAACP’s Legal Defence Fund — particularly his involvement in a case involving Mumia Abu-Jamal. The NAACP’s fund helped overturn Abu-Jamal’s death sentence for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.
In 2009, Adegbile filed a court brief arguing Abu-Jamal was sentenced by a discriminatory jury. A judge later determined the appeal had merit. Adegbile also was on the team representing Abu-Jamal when prosecutors again sought the death penalty.
Abu-Jamal’s original 1981 case did have racially charged elements. One female stenographer reportedly heard the trial judge say to the prosecution he was going to help them “fry that n — .” Abu-Jamal went on to become something of an icon among critics of the death penalty and police brutality.
Most of the Democratic senators who ended up voting against Adegbile were tight-lipped. Spokespeople for six of the seven (not counting Reid) did not respond to requests for comment. Coons, however, delivered a lengthy explanation of why he opposed the nomination.
“There is no question that Mr. Adegbile has had a significant and broad career as a leading civil rights advocate, and would be an asset to the Justice Department, but at a time when the Civil Rights Division urgently needs better relations with the law enforcement community, 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,” Coons said, in part.
Coons added it was the toughest vote he’s taken as a member of the Senate.
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