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. January 8, 2013.
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. January 8, 2013. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

The Senate today blocked Debo Adegbile’s bid to lead the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice amid questions about how he would work with the major law enforcement groups that vigorously opposed his nomination.

Seven Democrats joined Republicans to vote against Adegbile based on the work he 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.

The vote 47-52 vote included a ‘no’ vote from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a procedural trick that allows him to bring Adegbile’s nomination up for another vote in the future. The other Democrats who voted against Adegbile were sens. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and John Walsh (D-Mont.).

Coons, whose state is closely connected to Philadelphia, said the vote 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.”

Adegbile, a former top lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who has worked as senior counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee since July, had the support of committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and several prominent attorneys.

“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,” Coons said in a written statement, “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.”

Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the vote a “shameful day in our democracy” and urged another vote.

“Today’s vote demonstrated the worst elements of our political system,” Henderson said. “Unhinged rhetoric trumped substance, racialized language triumphed over thoughtful discourse, and our legal and political system will pay the price.”

President Obama in a statement called the Senate’s block today “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant.” Adegbile, the president said, has “impeccable” qualifications. Obama said Adegbile has an “unwavering dedication” to the protection of civil and constitutional rights, including voting rights.

“As a lawyer, Mr. Adegbile has played by the rules,” Obama said. “And now, Washington politics have used the rules against him. The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice – and those who voted against his nomination denied the American people an outstanding public servant.”

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said the vote came at a time when significant voting rights cases and other consequential matters are pending, and Adegbile’s record “was either misunderstood, or intentionally misrepresented for the sake of politics.”

“Our legal system hinges on the fundamental ideal that every accused individual has a constitutional right to counsel,” Holder said. “It is a very dangerous precedent to set for the legal profession when individual lawyers can have their otherwise sterling qualifications denigrated based solely on the clients that their organizations represent.”

Several Republicans spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday in opposition, including Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who said he was concerned with Adegbile’s “ability to set aside more than a decade of advocacy on behalf of this and other liberal causes to serve as a neutral enforcer of our Nation’s civil rights laws.”

“I have no doubt Mr. Adegbile is an intelligent and hardworking lawyer with a commendable record of advocacy, but that does not mean he should head the Civil Rights Division,” Flake said.

“One of the responsibilities of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is to handle civil rights violations by law enforcement officers from across the country,” Flake said. “However, serious questions have been raised about Mr. Adegbile’s ability to apply the law fairly in these cases, given his advocacy on behalf of a convicted cop killer.”

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.