Last week, I found myself in a protracted online debate about the (now failed) nomination of Debo Adegbile to head up the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice—the federal agency tasked with enforcing anti-discrimination laws. Adegbile started his career as a Big Law litigator in New York and then moved on to work at the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, which is where this story really begins.
In 2009, Adegbile was part of a NAACP legal team that drafted the amicus brief to the Supreme Court arguing that Philadelphia cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal‘s conviction was invalidated by racial bias that occurred during jury selection. (The brief also included a few other procedural items related to racism in the legal system and the violation of Abu-Jamal’s constitutional rights.) Of course, Adegbile has plenty else on his resume. Among other things, he argued in defense of the Voting Rights Act at the Supreme Court in both 2008 and 2013. He was also on “Sesame Street” as a child.
But none of these accomplishments matter in the eyes of Senate Republicans, a handful of Senate Democrats and the Fraternal Order of Police, not to mention the folks with whom I was debating. In their eyes, an attorney who argues in defense of the rights of a person convicted of murdering a police officer is mocking law enforcement. Many Senators felt compelled to vote against Adegbile’s nomination out of concern that they would be painted as soft on crime, which is not something anyone wants during an election year. There was also the concern that Adegbile would be less effective at the job than a nominee whose relationship to the law enforcement community was less controversial.
The implied threat was that law enforcement would not cooperate with a Civil Rights Division headed by someone who represented a cop killer, no matter what else that person did in their career. Fox News and its allies went down their usual rabbit hole, paying lip service to the notion that everyone is entitled to legal representation, while hand-wringing about the dead officer’s widow and the general uptick in supposed “radical racism” in the Obama administration. The end result was that a small group of Democrats—from the places you’d expect them to be from—voted against the nomination, thereby torpedoing Adegbile’s future in the DOJ and giving the Republicans exactly what they wanted all along with the bonus prize of the knowledge that, once again, they’d managed to cow Democrats in dicey districts into breaking ranks.
My conversation ended up in a few interesting places. It turned out that some of the people in the mix were growing up in Philadelphia when the crime Abu-Jamal is in jail for took place (1981). It was pretty clear from the get-go that their feelings on the subject were much more emotional than rational. My personal philosophy is that when discussing matters of criminal justice, it’s important to stick to the facts and follow the processes. When you start getting to a place where the way you feel about the defense (or the prosecution, or the judge, or the jury) is more important than the facts in front of you, you are no longer operating in a way that is conducive to the proper execution of justice. Emotional appeals do have their place, even within the legal system. But an individual’s feeling that judicial processes are unimportant is not germane to whether those processes are required. Guilty people can be set free if the procedures to convict and sentence them are not followed. It happens, and when it does, it’s usually framed as “getting off on a technicality,” as though these safeguards—which apply to everyone—are trivialities that stand in the way of fighting crime.
Of course, the controversy surrounding Adegbile’s nomination for this post is only the latest in a series of kerfuffles related to Obama’s supposed radical politics. There is a perception that this president, who has hardly proven to be a radical revolutionary, keeps company with people who are violent radical lefties and then nominates those people for influential positions in government. The fear of the Fox brigade seems to be that if too many people with radical politics end up working for the government—in whatever capacity—we will descend into lefty anarchy tomorrow. This strain of thinking holds that political radicals lack respect for or passion about issues of justice and the rule of law.
To combat this flawed ideology, ten people sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee discussing Adegbile’s qualifications and the importance of the protection of civil rights. They are partners at highly rated law firms, law school professors and the directors of various nonprofits whose missions are related to justice and civil rights. They are hardly radical revolutionaries, and they also believe that Adegbile should not be removed from consideration for Assistant AG simply because he and his organization represented Mumia Abu-Jamal.
How I feel about Mumia Abu-Jamal is almost irrelevant. I actually hadn’t thought about him in years. When I was a teenage punk rocker in the 1990s, his situation was the cause du jour for many of my activist friends. They had t-shirts. There were benefit shows for his legal defense. If any of the cover charges I paid for those shows resulted in Mumia Abu-Jamal hiring the NAACP to take his case to the Supreme Court and get his death sentence changed to life in prison, I consider that $5 well spent, since personally, I am against the death penalty.
What I care about is justice. We are, theoretically, a nation of laws. Many of these laws have been enacted to protect the guilty, because it is important to our society that people be treated with dignity even if they are criminals (again, theoretically—obviously, this isn’t the way it plays out a lot of the time, but it certainly is the intent). People do not lose their right to swift and unbiased justice simply because they are accused of a crime. They do not lose their right to that justice because they are unlikable or because their politics are different than mine. The laws that protect the rights of Mumia Abu-Jamal also protect the rights of the multiple people guilty of assassinating doctors who perform abortions.
The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ deals with a lot of different things—everything from voting rights violations to human trafficking to employment issues. It is the sort of office that absolutely should be headed by someone who is unafraid to stand up for the rights of the guilty. It’s easy to protect the rights of the innocent. It’s easy to stand up for people who are likeable. It is much, much harder to defend the rights of a person who is not likeable, who has committed crimes that we find morally reprehensible. But in the end, those stands taken in support of the rights of the morally reprehensible strengthen the laws that protect everyone.