Debo Adegbile, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to be Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.
Debo Adegbile, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee to be Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

Updated 10:44 a.m.

The president of the American Bar Association and other prominent lawyers are urging the Senate Judiciary Committee not to penalize a top Justice Department nominee for having once helped with the appeal of a convicted murderer.

During confirmation hearings on Jan. 8, Debo Adegbile, nominated to head the department’s Civil Rights division, came under criticism for work he and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund did on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted in the murder of a Philadelphia police officer more than 30 years ago.

In a letter to the committee, ABA president James Silkenat wrote, “A fundamental tenet of our justice system and our Constitution is that anyone who faces loss of liberty has a right to legal counsel. Lawyers have an ethical obligation to uphold that principle and provide zealous representation to people who otherwise would stand alone against the power and resources of the government—even to those accused or convicted of terrible crimes.”

Another letter to the committee pointed out that a wide range of lawyers who have held prominent government positions have had similar clients in the past. When he was a partner at Hogan Lovells, the letter noted, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. helped represent Florida death row inmate John Ferguson, convicted in the murder of eight people.

Gibson Dunn & Crutcher’s Miguel Estrada, Latham & Watkins’ Gregory Garre, Seth Waxman of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, and current solicitor general Donald Verrilli Jr. have done the same. “These attorneys devoted hundreds of hours, on a pro bono basis, to ensure that important legal issues were ably advocated and fully understood by the courts,” the letter said. “Thus, [the fund's] advocacy on behalf of Mr. Abu-Jamal does not disqualify Mr. Adegbile from leading the Civil Rights Division. To conclude otherwise would send the wrong message to any lawyer who is affiliated, or might be asked to become involved with a difficult, unpopular case for the purpose of enforcing and preserving important constitutional principles.”

Among those signing the letter were George Kendall of Squire Sanders, Paul Smith and David DeBruin of Jenner & Block, Lisa Blatt of Arnold & Porter, Jeffrey Green of Sidley Austin, William Sheehan of Goodwin Procter, and Andrew Schapiro of Quinn Emanuel.

During the confirmation hearing, ranking Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) expressed concern about Adegbile’s representation, citing a letter from the Fraternal Order of Police to President Barack Obama protesting is nomination. The letter by national president Chuck Canterbury anticipated the defense of Adegbile.

“We are aware of the tried and true shield behind which activists of Adegbile’s ilk are wont to hide—that everyone is entitled to a defense. But surely you would agree that a defense should not be based on falsely disparaging and savaging the good name and reputation of a lifeless police officer.”

Adegbile’s nomination is on the Jan. 30 agenda at the Senate Judiciary Committee.