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)

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gibson Dunn & Crutcher’s Miguel Estrada, Latham & Watkins’ Gregory Garre and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. signed a letter supporting the nomination of Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. The lawyers were mentioned in the letter but did not sign it.

The Senate Judiciary Committee today approved the nomination of Debo Adegbile to run the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, despite objections from Republicans for his appellate work on behalf of a convicted killer.

The committee voted, 10-8, to move Adegbile’s nomination to the full Senate, where it is uncertain when he might get a final vote. Under the Senate’s new rules, however, Adegbile’s nomination needs only a simple majority to win approval.

Republicans on the committee again expressed concern about work Adegbile and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund did on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted in the murder of a Philadelphia police officer more than 30 years ago.

Voting against Adegbile, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said the Civil Rights Division remains politicized and Adegbile “will only make that worse” because he has been a fighter for a political agenda for the past 12 years. “His legal arguments and his factual arguments reflect that ideology,” Hatch said.

Adegbile, a former top lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who has worked as senior counsel to the committee since July, had the support of committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The president of the American Bar Association, dozens of nonprofit groups and several prominent lawyers backed Adegbile.

Leahy said the opposition is based on an incorrect belief that Adegbile made the decision to take on the Mumia Abu-Jamal case when he was at the fund. “Even if it had been his decision it’s not something that should disqualify him from the position,” Leahy said before the vote.

“He doesn’t deserve the disparagement I see in some of the media outlets,” Leahy said before the vote. “Criticism on his nomination has been centered on one case out of the hundreds and hundreds he’s been involved with.”

Adegbile argued two significant cases on voting rights before the U.S. Supreme Court during his tenure at the fund, and he litigated for seven years at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

One letter to the committee had warned against disqualifying Adegbile based on his past advocacy as a lawyer for a politically unpopular client. The letter named other prominent lawyers who had done the same, including 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.

To do so “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,” the letter said.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a written statement today that the leader of this Civil Rights Division can’t be “so committed to political causes, that it clouds his or her judgment.” Grassley also referenced the previous assistant attorney general for civil rights, Tom Perez, who is now Secretary of Labor.

“This is particularly important here, given that the tenure of the last head of the office was marked by controversy,” Grassley said in a written statement. “And those controversies, in my view, were a direct result of a deep commitment to liberal causes, which clouded his judgment.”

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.