A more than three-decade old murder of a police officer on the streets of Philadelphia is threatening to thwart the Obama administration’s nomination of a top Department of Justice official.
President Obama nominated Debo Adegbile, a former official with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to serve as assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division. But Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is arguing that Adegbile’s work at the NAACP, where he helped mount a defense of alleged police-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, disqualifies him for the post.
“The Justice Department’s website explains, the Civil Rights Division ‘fulfills a critical mission in upholding the civil and constitutional rights of all individuals,’” wrote Toomey in a letter to his Senate colleagues. “This requires the head of the Civil Rights Division to have an absolute commitment to truth and justice. There are many highly qualified Americans who can carry out this critical mission. Mr. Adegbile’s record creates serious doubts that he is one of them.”
The Mumia Abu-Jamal case continues to be an international cause célèbre and a lightning rod in the Philadelphia area. In 1981, Abu-Jamal was accused of shooting police officer Daniel Faulkner in the back during a routine traffic stop. Abu-Jamal was a well-known area activist and journalist, and was convicted of the murder after choosing to represent himself at the trial.
While on Death Row, Abu-Jamal became a symbol for what many around the world viewed as a racially biased and unfair criminal justice system. He authored seven books while in prison and regularly broadcast his message on left-of-center and Internet radio stations. Each year on the anniversary of Faulkner’s death protesters and advocates from around the world descend on Philadelphia to support Abu-Jamal.
In 2011, the execution case against Abu-Jamal was dropped by Philadelphia district attorney Seth Williams and his sentence commuted to life without parole. Now however Williams says he disagrees with his fellow Democrats about the appropriateness of Adegbile’s nomination.
“While I am a supporter of so many of President Obama’s decisions, I must respectfully and strongly disagree with this one. Mr. Adegbile’s decision to champion the cause of an extremist cop-killer sends a message of contempt to police officers who risk their lives every day, and I believe he is ill-suited for a pivotal role in the Justice Department,” he said in a statement. “And to select Mr. Adegbile, among all those qualified for the position, speaks volumes to police officers and their families.”
Democrats have responded by pointing out that all defendants are entitled to representation, and that regardless Adegbile’s role in the Abu-Jamal defense was only nominal, signing his name to three amicus briefs as a part of his role with the NAACP LDF.
“The nominee has testified under oath, and stated for the record in his written responses to questions posed by Senators, that the decision to provide appellate representation to Abu-Jamal was made by the previous president of LDF,” Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee said on Thursday before a vote on the nomination. “These responses have been provided to all Senators on committee and are publicly available on the committee’s website. Even if it had been his decision, however, it is not something that should disqualify him from serving the public. Our legal system is an adversary system, predicated upon legal advocacy for both sides. Without this, our justice system would be a sham.”
A senior Republican aide scoffed at this notion, pointing out that while Adegbile’s name may only appear on three briefs in the case, he directed a group of lawyers in his capacity with the NAACP, and that Abu-Jamal had a team of celebrity lawyers who had taken up his cause. “This is not exactly John Adams defending the Redcoats after the Boston Massacre,” the aide said.
Pam Africa, the head of International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia-based organization that has been advocating for Abu-Jamal’s release for decades, said that Republicans were trying to be divisive. “He did not represent Mumia Abu Jamal. He never appeared in court for Mumia, had nothing to do with Mumia, and they know that.” Africa added that all defendants are entitled to representation. “Mumia just so happened to be innocent.”
The nomination passed out of the Judiciary Committee today by a 10-8 margin. Since Democrats changed the filibuster rules late last year, there is little that Republicans may be able to do to derail the nomination.
The episode however has enflamed right-wing critics of Obama and attorney general Eric Holder. A headline on the website Town Hall recently proclaimed “We Have a President Who has Nominated a Cop Killer” and Carl Rowan, a columnist for the Washington Times, proclaiming that this “isn’t the first questionable nomination made by a president who, for one reason or another, seems drawn to those with radical backgrounds, but this one is an open slap in the face to everyone in law enforcement.”