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Senate blocks Obama nominee over Mumia Abu-Jamal case

1:16 PM, Mar 5, 2014   |    comments
Debo Adegbile (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Senate narrowly defeated President Obama's nominee to oversee the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division due to Republican and law enforcement objections to the role he played in the defense of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Only 47 senators, all Democrats, voted to advance Debo Adegbile's nomination while 52 senators voted to block him, including 7 Democrats. Vice President Biden presided over the vote in the event he could break a tie, which was unnecessary after Democrats failed to muster enough support.

The Democrats voting to block the nomination were Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, John Walsh of Montana, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, and Chris Coons of Delaware. Coons, Pryor, and Walsh all face re-election this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also voted against the nomination in the end, but only for procedural reasons that will allow him to bring it up again if he so chooses.

Adegbile's defeat occurred even after Senate Democrats last year unilaterally changed the Senate rules on judicial and executive nominations to lower the threshold from 60 to a simple majority of votes to end a filibuster. He is the first Obama nominee to lose on the floor over Democratic opposition.

Democrats, lawyers groups and civil rights activists hailed Adegbile as one of the nation's leading civil rights attorneys with impeccable credentials honed over two decades in the profession. He has worked as an aide in the U.S. Senate as well as the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and has argued two civil rights cases on voting rights before the Supreme Court.

"There is no question about his competence," said Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., prior to the vote.

However, his nomination prompted fierce backlash from the law enforcement community because he once worked on the defense team of Abu-Jamal, who was convicted for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police office Daniel Faulkner. Adegbile was part of the NAACP legal team that is partly credited with commuting Abu-Jamal's death sentence.

In a statement, Coons said he did not doubt Adegbile's qualifications but that he could not overcome concerns about his ability to do the job. "I was troubled by the idea of voting for an Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights who would face such visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on the job," he said, "The vote I cast today was one of the most difficult I have taken since joining the Senate, but I believe it to be right for the people I represent."

Speaking on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted that Adegbile's work on the case began 25 years after the murder occurred and credited Adegbile's work on protecting constitutional rights. "He's a fine man, what a story of the American Dream. He's devoted his life to public service," Reid said.

Faulkner's widow, Maureen, lobbied senators to oppose the nomination. "Old wounds have once again been ripped open and additional insult is brought upon our law enforcement community in this country by President Obama's nomination of Debo Adegbile," she wrote in an emotional letter, "Certainly there are others with similar qualifications that would be better choices. I would argue that Mr. Adegbile's decision to defend a cop killer should preclude him from holding any public position."

The Philadelphia Inquirer, which exhaustively covered Abu-Jamal''s conviction and appeals, strongly disagreed in a Tuesday editorial. "To argue that Adegbile, one of the country's foremost legal scholars - especially when it comes to civil rights law - should be disqualified from the Justice post because he participated in Abu-Jamal's appeals is an affront to what it means to live in America. This country allows every convict to exhaustively appeal a verdict, even when all the prior evidence appears to have assured his guilt."

A New York City native, Adegbile, 47, spent nine years in the 1970's as a child actor on Sesame Street.

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