Failed nomination doesn’t speak well for future picks

March 11, 2014

I spotted Delaware’s U.S. Sen. Chris Coons’s face in an unusual place last week - lined up with six other senators in a Huffington Post lead story about a Democratic hall of shame.

The reason: Coons and six other Democrats helped block the confirmation of Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s nominee to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

It was an embarrassing defeat for Democrats. Last year, because of the president’s difficulties in getting his nominees confirmed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suspended a Senate rule requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster. This would allow nominees to be confirmed with a simple majority vote of Democratic senators.

Despite the rule change, Adegbile’s nomination went down in flames 47-52.

Reaction was swift. Democrats were angry, law enforcement officials, pleased.

I was disappointed and couldn’t help thinking about Bryan Stevenson, a 1977 Cape Henlopen graduate who heads the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. I’ll get to the reason why in a minute.

Adegbile’s nomination was derailed because he had filed an appeal on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia policeman. It wasn’t because of Adegbile’s qualifications.

Coons admitted as much. In a statement, he blamed those who had made Abu-Jamal a celebrity, causing great pain to the policeman’s widow and “great disrespect for law enforcement officers and families throughout our region. These factors have led me to cast a vote today that is more about listening to and respecting their concerns than about the innate qualifications of this nominee.”

This is a perplexing statement. I feel bad for the widow. She has had to endure not only the killing of her husband, but Abu-Jamal’s sometimes successful efforts to paint himself as a political prisoner rather than a murderer.

But it’s a strange day when we reject a nominee not for his own actions, but for the actions of others. Adegbile himself did nothing wrong. He did what is expected of lawyers: defend his client. (Adegbile’s brief, by the way, didn’t attest to Abu-Jamal’s innocence; it questioned the constitutionality of the jury instructions.)

Here’s what James Silkenat, the president of the American Bar Association, said of Adegbile’s work in a Jan. 13, 2014 letter:

“I was alarmed to learn that there is some opposition to Mr. Adegbile’s nomination based solely on his efforts to protect the fundamental rights of an unpopular client while working at the Legal Defense Fund. His work … is consistent with the finest tradition of this country’s legal profession and should be commended, not condemned.”

Though I don’t doubt Coons’s vote was influenced by his desire to maintain good relations with Delaware’s law enforcement community, I can’t help seeing it as another victory for the right-wing media, which dominates American politics. Fox News had a field day with the story.

Here’s Megan Kelly questioning Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP president, about Adegbile’s nomination: “There are some reports out there, I have not independently confirmed these, that he was deemed unqualified for a position on the federal bench by the American Bar Association.”

Translation: “I haven’t confirmed this and don’t know what I’m talking about, but, hey, I found it on the internet, so I’m going with it.”

In fact, the ABA did not rate Adegbile.

Coons’s vote also helps undercut one of the president’s legitimate beefs: that the Senate has held up confirming his appointments.

This was, of course, the reason Reid ditched the filibuster rule. Now Republicans can say it’s not their fault that the president’s nominees haven’t been confirmed; Obama can’t even round up enough Democratic votes.

And finally, I couldn’t help wondering how Bryan Stevenson would fare if he were nominated.

Stevenson is the kind of person who should be considered for a post like the Justice Department’s civil rights division. He’s a Harvard-educated lawyer who has argued cases before the Supreme Court. His well-known TED talk received a standing ovation and raised $1 million for Stevenson’s nonprofit organization.

But I could see him running into the same problems as Adegbile. Stevenson might not have any clients as high profile as Abu-Jamal, but he does represent men on death row. Obviously, his clients have been accused and convicted of horrible crimes, crimes that could be tied to Stevenson. (Conservatives didn’t seem to mind that Chief Justice John Robert pro bono work included defending a killer who murdered eight people.)

What’s more, Stevenson has been a passionate critic of America’s justice system, especially its unfairness toward the poor and minorities.

That’s exactly the kind of red meat conservative operatives love. It’s easy to imagine them depicting Stevenson as an America-hating “racialist.”

And so the next time Obama looks for a nominee, he’s less likely to consider people like Stevenson, who have a record of working for social justice.

In the end, the only way to stop unfair attacks and tactics is to stand up to them. In this case, Coons didn’t.


My apologies for my typo on State Auditor Tom Wagner’s name last week.

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