Senate Blocks Civil Rights Post Pick 03/06 12:46
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Should a lawyer be disqualified from public service for
representing a client like a cop killer? The question arises after the Senate
rejected President Barack Obama's candidate to be the government's chief civil
The White House, attorneys and civil rights groups argued that a bipartisan
vote Wednesday blocking Debo Adegbile from advancing toward confirmation set a
troubling precedent that could dissuade lawyers with aspirations to serve in
government from taking on unpopular clients or working for unpopular causes.
"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," Obama, a lawyer himself, argued after the final vote.
Adegbile spent much of his career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational
Fund, where he argued before the Supreme Court that Mumia Abu-Jamal's
conviction for killing a Philadelphia police officer should be overturned
because of discrimination in jury selection. Abu-Jamal is now serving a life
sentence without parole.
The National Fraternal Order of Police urged senators to oppose Adegbile for
his advocacy in the case. All 44 Republicans and eight Democrats voted against
his nomination as head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division,
likely dooming the nomination in what Obama called a "travesty based on wildly
unfair character attacks." It was unknown what the next steps the White House
will take with the nomination
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a lawyer, voted no because Adegbile
"would face such visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on
the job." But Coons also said he embraces "the proposition that an attorney is
not responsible for the actions of their client."
Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage
Foundation think tank, said senators had a right to probe Adegbile's work
because it was for an advocacy group.
"They tried to bring racial politics into this murder of a police officer,
and not only that, they used it to try to try to make the false claim that we
have an entirely racist judicial system and they used it to raise money," he
said. "I don't know of any private attorneys who use their representation of
clients to try and raise money for their organization. It is very much on point
to be able to criticize him for the kind of representation they provided."
The Adegbile vote was the latest example of changing standards for legal
nominees that reflects increasing politicization of the nomination process.
Adegbile's backers point out that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts
aided in the representation of Florida death row inmate John Ferguson,
convicted of killing eight people.
"During the course of their long careers, both John Roberts and Debo
Adegbile each performed a vital constitutional service by representing an
unpopular client on death row," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Roberts is now chief justice
of the Supreme Court, but opponents of the Adegbile nomination twisted reality
and resorted to some of the dirtiest attacks I've seen in my professional
Democrats opposed Obama's nomination of Atlanta attorney Mark Cohen as a
federal judge because he argued in favor of Georgia's voter identification law.
And Republicans opposed Obama's nomination of Caitlin Halligan as an appellate
judge because of her work on a case against gun manufacturers as solicitor
general of New York.
Obama's counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, said rising young lawyers who have taken
on unpopular clients were watching the Adegbile vote and thinking they will
never be able to serve at a senior level in the government.
"It's a horrible message to send that is degrading to our whole system of
justice, which relies on having skilled advocates on both sides of the case,"
Ruemmler said. "Our system is premised on that fundamental bedrock principle.
It works best when both the prosecution and defense are represented by highly
Russell Wheeler, a Brookings Institution visiting fellow who is an expert on
Senate judicial nominations, said holding lawyers' clients against them only
leads to less qualified nominees and a poorer legal system.
"What that's doing is scaring people away from taking on unpopular causes if
they're afraid it's going to ruin their post-litigation career, so it's not
only a disservice to the individual, it's a disservice to the adversary
process," Wheeler said.
The American Bar Association has argued to senators that using lawyers'
clients against them is out of bounds.
"Although lawyers work for their clients, their representation does not mean
that they endorse their client's views or actions," ABA President James R.
Silkenat said Wednesday. "Any lawyer who stands in defense of the accused
should be commended for the services they render in accordance with our
nation's founding principles."