One of the jobs of our U.S. Senate is to approve the President's nominations
of people to certain high-level government jobs. Many nominations do not
get much media attention. However, a stir was created last week when the
Senate rejected Debo Adegbile, a prominent civil rights lawyer, for a
top job with the Justice Department.
The controversy arose from the reason for Adegbile's failed confirmation.
He was not rejected because he accepted bribes, threw tantrums in court,
or failed to show up for work. Rather, he was turned down for a post in
the Department's civil rights division because he did his job too well.
There was no dispute that Adegbile was a fine lawyer and a zealous advocate.
There was no dispute about his character or integrity. But he was undone
because he worked on a NAACP defense team which represented an African
American man convicted of killing a police officer. Another strike against
him was that he committed the sin of arguing Voting Rights Act cases before
the U.S. Supreme Court (voting, of course, is one of our most fundamental
Apparently, representing unpopular people is now a deal breaker for nominees
before the U.S. Senate. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell accused
Adegbile of glorifying "an unrepentant cop killer." This vitriol
was directed at Agegbile because he had the temerity to raise serious
Constitutional questions - successfully as it turns out - about the fairness
of the accused man's trial.
It is important to understand what Adegbile did
not do. He did not kill a police officer. He did not advocate killing police
officers. Instead, as part of a NAACP defense team, Adegbile argued that
the accused killer's trial was unfair because it was tainted with
racial discrimination. Later, Adegbile argued the judge gave the jury
the wrong instructions about the law they should apply in deciding the
case. These were serious arguments about the fundamental fairness of the
At any rate, after Adegbile's team prevailed on these arguments, the
convicted killer did not go free. His sentence was simply reduced from
death to life in prison.
Nevertheless, Adegbile's nomination degenerated into an episode of
political theater. Purportedly conservative senators jumped on the "cop
killer's coddler" bandwagon. Some Democratic senators, perhaps
worried that a vote in favor of Adegbile would show up in political attack
ads during reelection season, jumped on the bandwagon too. The nomination
was narrowly defeated, 52-47.
Until recently, senators involved in the confirmation process understood
the types of efforts undertaken by Adegbile constituted advocacy, not
glorification. Vigorous representation, even for unpopular people and
causes, was considered a sign of respect for the rule of law. Both liberal
and conservative leaders considered this a core principle of our legal system.
This principle has a long and distinguished history. For example, before
the American Revolution, a young lawyer in Boston came to the defense
of British soldiers accused of committing the Boston Massacre. The young
lawyer was an American patriot himself, and admitted the decision to defend
the soldiers was heart wrenching. But he never regretted it, calling it
"one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions
of my whole life." Someone must have agreed with him, because John
Adams went on to be the second President of the United States and a revered
More recently, a lawyer in private practice worked as a volunteer to defend
a man who murdered eight people. That lawyer, John Roberts, is now the
chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court - the highest judge on the highest
court in the land.
Simply put, lawyers are not their clients. They are not accomplices to
the things their clients do. Just as an emergency room doctor does not
advocate gang violence by trying to save a gang member involved in a knife
fight, a lawyer does not advocate criminal behavior by defending one accused
of a crime. At a personal level, lawyers often do not agree with or endorse
the actions of those they represent. But they understand that seeking
justice for clients or defending their rights is a solemn duty, and a
noble calling, under our laws and Constitution.
Fair treatment under the law is not supposed to depend on whether a person
behaved the right way or has the "right" set of beliefs. All
clients, regardless of their race, ethnicity, political views, or religious
faith, are supposed to have the same rights under the law. Lawyers who
attempt to protect those rights should not be punished by being disqualified
from government service.
True conservatives will not be rejoicing about Adegbile's rejection.
If his case sets a new standard, then nominees they would consider desirable
will be vulnerable too. John Roberts would not be on the Supreme Court.
Gerry Spence, arguably one of the finest trial lawyers of the last century,
would also be disqualified from government service. He would be off limits
because he successfully defended Randy Weaver against a charge of murdering
a U.S. Marshal during the infamous Ruby Ridge standoff.
Unfortunately, a majority of our U.S. senators don't seem interested
in the fact that representing someone is different than aiding and abetting
in their crimes. Those senators seem much more concerned about reelection
and racial politics. Adegbile's defeat was not a case of profiles
in courage; rather, it was a case of profiles in cowardice. John Adams
must be rolling over in his grave.