Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin called out the Senate for judging Obama’s Department of Justice nominee Debo Adegbile by "a terrible double standard..."
Part of the reason is that the Senate is brimming with lawyers, and many of their friends and close associates — or perhaps they themselves — have represented clients who’ve been charged with terrible things.
But that’s only the case because lawyers, more than most, take the principle that anyone who faces conviction deserves a competent defense very seriously. If representing someone who did terrible things becomes a professional liability, that principle becomes endangered.
That’s why the current chief justice of the Supreme Court was confirmed overwhelmingly in 2005 despite having defended a man who was recently executed for murdering several people. If this ad hominem principle didn’t exist, Americans Fore Prosperitee would’ve run misleading 30-second ads in 1860 attacking Abraham Lincoln for getting Duff Armstrong acquitted of murder just two years earlier.
But that all changed on Wednesday when a handful of Senate Democrats joined the entire Republican Party and rejected Debo Adegbile’s nomination to run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Not because his policy views are troubling or because he lacks qualification, but because he participated in the legal defense of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Specifically, he headed an NAACP Legal Defense Fund team that successfully kept Abu-Jamal off death row, and, along with other LDF lawyers, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court alleging bias and racial discrimination in Abu-Jamal’s jury selection process.
If you’re a talented young lawyer with lofty public-service ambitions the lesson here is don’t affiliate yourself with advocacy groups, don’t take pro bono cases, keep your nose buried in corporate work. If you honor your juridical duty to ensure that even monsters receive fair hearings you will be accused of coddling them.
The smear campaign against Adegbile from conservative media has been especially over the top, with one Fox News pundit going so far as to call him a “cop killer coddler.”
It’s apparently easy for some – including a majority of the U.S. Senate – to forget that in the United States, we believe that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a defense. It’s a basic principle woven into the fabric of our justice system. No matter how heinous or shocking the allegations, we’re committed to a process in which defendants are treated fairly, including a right to competent counsel.
Americans have believed this since before we were even our own country. In 1770, John Adams provided the defense for eight British soldiers accused of the murders in the Boston Massacre. It didn’t mean Adams was un-American. It didn’t even stop Adams from later becoming president.
A majority of the Senate lost sight of this today. It was not the institution’s finest hour.
Republicans had other objections to Adegbile, mostly centered on the expectation he'd aggressively enforce voting rights laws.
"The criminal defendants that we represent, we represent to vindicate constitutional principles and it's never more important than in capital cases where we're talking about the state exercising the authority to take the life of a human being," [Legal Defense Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill] said.
After all, Ifill said, that never stopped John Roberts from getting confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But sources tell NPR the administration never properly vetted Adegbile's nomination with police groups before it happened. And cops were furious.
Law enforcement turned up the heat and Senate Democrats badly miscalculated the numbers. They labored to check the votes of several Democrats facing close elections this fall but overlooked too many members of their base.
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