03.05.14

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On the Nomination of Debo P. Adegbile

Today, we will vote to end the filibuster on the nomination of Debo Adegbile to serve as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Department of Justice.  Anyone who personally knows Debo understands that he is a man of the highest character and utmost integrity. 

The Civil Rights Division was created in 1957 in the wake of the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and is charged with enforcing Federal laws prohibiting discrimination, and upholding the civil and constitutional rights of the most vulnerable members of our society.  From protecting voting rights to combating human trafficking to protecting against religious or racial discrimination, we all know that more work needs to be done.  The Civil Rights Division plays a pivotal role in protecting the civil rights of all Americans. 

Debo is the kind of proven leader that we need at the Civil Rights Division.  He is a superb lawyer with a compelling personal story of triumph over adversity.  A son of immigrants from Ireland and Nigeria, Debo was born in the Bronx.  He grew up in poverty amidst periods of homelessness, yet overcame those obstacles to attend Connecticut College and the New York University School of Law.  Debo then litigated for seven years at one of the nation’s top law firms. 

He then served as Legal Director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), a renowned civil rights organization founded nearly 75 years ago by the great Thurgood Marshall.  During his time at LDF, Debo argued two landmark cases on voting rights before the United States Supreme Court.  He is widely regarded as an expert on civil rights law, and has received an outpouring of support from the civil rights community.

Congressman John Lewis has expressed his “unwavering support” for Debo’s nomination, stating that his “intelligence, legal acumen, experience, and commitment to his craft, reflect deeply on his ability to offer the Civil Rights Division outstanding leadership into the future.” 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 83 other civil rights organizations called Debo “a tireless advocate, a skilled litigator, and a well-respected member of the legal community who is extraordinarily qualified for and suited to this position.”

And the Congressional Black Caucus stated that he is “one of the preeminent civil rights litigators of his generation,” and “offers precisely the type of experience, professionalism, and leadership skills necessary to run the Division.”

Support for Debo’s nomination extends from the civil rights community to supporters business and law enforcement.  Kenneth Chenault, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of American Express, wrote that he has been “continually impressed by [Debo’s] skills and professionalism – along with his steadfast commitment to upholding civil rights.”

The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) gave its “unwavering support” to Debo’s nomination, noting his impressive record of achievement.  We have also received letters of support from Detective Terrance Daniels, a retired member of the New York City Police Department; the New York state Attorney General; and several district attorneys and Federal prosecutors. 

Paul Clement, the Solicitor General under President George W. Bush has said the following about Debo:  “I have litigated both with and against Debo and have heard him argue in the Supreme Court.  I have always found him to be a formidable advocate of the highest intellect, skills and integrity.”  The list of Debo’s supporters is extensive, and I ask unanimous consent to submit this list as part of the Record.

Despite Debo’s expertise, some are opposing his nomination based on a single case:  Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeal of his death sentence for the 1981 murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner.  It should go without saying that we all condemn the murder of Officer Faulkner.  That was a horrific tragedy, and my heart goes out to Mrs. Faulkner and all family members who have lost a loved one in the line of duty.  Officer Faulkner served bravely to protect our community and to defend our system of justice and our Constitution.  It is officers like Officer Faulkner that drive many of us to support programs like the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program.  I only wish that my proactive effort ignited as much passion from my friends on the other side of the aisle as their negative reaction to this nominee.  Unfortunately, not a single Senate Republican has joined me in this fight to protect the lives of police officers since 2008. 

Someone solely watching Fox News might think this nominee himself was a criminal but of course he is not.  The attacks launched against this nominee demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a lawyer and the very constitutional system of justice that law enforcement officers all swear an oath to protect.  It is time to clear the record.

First, the assertion that Debo made the decision for LDF to take on Abu-Jamal’s case is simply not accurate.  That decision was made by the previous president of LDF.  The nominee we are considering today has testified under oath that it was not his decision.  Once that decision was made, it was LDF’s and Debo’s ethical duty to zealously represent their client – no matter how distasteful or unpopular.

Debo’s role in the Abu-Jamal case was limited to two Supreme Court briefs and one Third Circuit brief.  Attempts to attribute more to Debo, including the out-of-court statements by other LDF attorneys, are unfounded.  These remind me of the attacks that were made against Thurgood Marshall’s when he was nominated to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  At the time, Republican Senator Keating provided an articulate response of why such attacks are unreasonable and unfair:

“If counsel is suggesting something that Judge Marshall must have the responsibility for every little action that is taken by any lawyer who has been appearing in an NAACP case, he is imposing a standard of responsibility which certainly goes beyond any point of reasonableness.  Judge Marshall’s conduct and his ethical standards have not been questioned in these hearings.  It is ridiculous to suggest that he may be disqualified for judicial service because some other lawyers who appeared in an NAACP case may or may not have done things which counsel considers questionable and where there is absolutely no showing that Judge Marshall has anything to do with the conduct at issue.”

Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if it had been Debo’s decision to represent Mr. Abu-Jamal, that should not disqualify him from public service.  Our legal system is an adversary system, predicated upon zealous advocacy for both sides.  Without this, our justice system would be a sham. As now-Chief Justice Roberts testified at his confirmation hearing in 2005,

“[I]t’s a tradition of the American Bar that goes back before the founding of the country that lawyers are not identified with the positions of their clients.  The most famous example probably was John Adams, who represented the British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre.  He did that for a reason, because he wanted to show that the Revolution in which he was involved was not about overturning the rule of law, it was about vindicating the rule of law.

“…[T]hat you don’t identify the lawyer with the particular views of the client, or the views that the lawyer advances on behalf of the client, is critical to the fair administration of justice.”

It is for this reason that as a nominee before the Senate John Roberts was not criticized for choosing to provide pro bono assistance to John Errol Ferguson, a prisoner in Florida who had been sentenced to death for killing eight people, including two teenagers, in the late 1970s. 

Whether it is John Adams or John Roberts, the principle that all sides deserve zealous and effective counsel is at the bedrock of our constitutional system. We cannot equate the lawyer with the conduct of those we represent if we want our justice system to endure.  After Debo’s confirmation hearing in early January, the Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee himself expressed the same sentiment when he said:  “You always have to take into consideration that everybody under our constitution is entitled to a defense.”

Some have argued that the Abu-Jamal case is somehow different because it became a “political cause” and was no longer just a case about defending an unpopular client.  But regardless of who the defendant might be, the constitutional right to a fair trial has nothing to do with politics and cannot be dismissed as merely a “political cause.”  It is worth noting that the district court decision vacating the death sentence was issued by a George H.W. Bush appointee and the Third Circuit panel of judges that upheld the district court decision included two Ronald Reagan appointees.  In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to accept the District Attorney’s appeal of the lower court decisions, thereby affirming the decisions to vacate the death sentence.  However unpopular LDF’s decision to represent Abu-Jamal might be, these decisions by independent Federal judges affirm that this case was about defending the rights guaranteed by our Constitution – and not merely some political stunt.

Finally, while criticism of a nominee’s qualifications is certainly part of the appointment process, some attacks are – by any measure – out of bounds.  Last month, while Debo’s nomination was still in the Judiciary Committee, the Washington Times published an editorial caricature of Debo that was racially-tinged, offensive, and beyond the pale.  I have spoken out against such insulting attempts to defame the nominees of Democratic and Republican presidents, and I do so again today.  I would also hope that those who are opposing Debo’s nomination would similarly distance themselves from them. 

Debo Adegbile is one of the nation’s leading civil rights lawyers.  Those of us who have worked with him cannot recognize the caricature that some have tried to paint.  I have seen him testify before a crowded Senate hearing room and quietly give counsel in a private meeting room.  I know him to be a thoughtful, respectful and careful person.  I am confident that he will bring a wealth of experience and good judgment to the Civil Rights Division.   I urge Senators to vote in favor of ending the filibuster against him. 

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