Why Senate Democrats Torpedoed Obama’s Top Civil Rights Nominee

Debo Adegbile, attorney with the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People speaks to the media in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Wednesday, Ap... Debo Adegbile, attorney with the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People speaks to the media in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington Wednesday, April 29, 2009.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon) MORE LESS
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In a remarkable move, the Democratic-led Senate scuttled President Barack Obama’s top civil rights nominee, citing his poor relations with the law enforcement community and a lack of voter “confidence” in him.

Debo P. Adegbile, who was tapped to be Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, failed to get the 50 votes needed to move forward on Wednesday. Eight Democrats voted with every Republican against “cloture” to advance the nomination (which now requires 50), leading to a final vote of 47 in favor, 52 against.

He is the first Obama nominee to be shot down by the Senate after Democrats changed the rules in November to eliminate the filibuster for non-Supreme Court nominees. Vice President Joe Biden came to the Senate to preside over the vote in case it was a 50-50 tie.

“[A]t a time when the Civil Rights Division urgently needs better relations with the law enforcement community, 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,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who voted against the nominee.

The nomination has faced strong criticism because Adegbile, then a lawyer for the NAACP, defended Mumia Abu Jamal, who was convicted in 1981 of killing a police officer in Philadelphia. A son of Irish and Nigerian immigrants, Adegbile overcame poverty and periods of homelessness while growing up, earning a law degree from New York University and going on to argue cases before the Supreme Court.

“The Senate’s failure to confirm Debo Adegbile to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice is a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant,” Obama said in a statement. “Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable. … The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice – and those who voted against his nomination denied the American people an outstanding public servant.”

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey (D) also opposed the nomination, explaining his position in a statement last week. “I respect that our system of law ensures the right of all citizens to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime. At the same time, it is important that we ensure that Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country have full confidence in their public representatives — both elected and appointed. The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the City of Philadelphia.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) switched his vote to ‘no’ at the end, in order to reserve his right to bring up the nomination again.

“We knew it was going to be a close vote, one way or another,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told TPM. “I’m hopeful that [he] will come up again. I’m disappointed that [the vote failed].”

Republicans used the occasion to bash the president.

“This is an embarrassment for President Obama and the Democrats who thought it was a good idea to nominate a convicted cop-killer’s most ardent defender to head a DOJ Department and failed,” said Reince Priebus, the chair of the Republican National Committee.

The Democrats who voted against cloture on the nomination were Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WV), Mark Pryor (AR), John Walsh (MT), Coons, Casey and (for procedural reasons) Reid.

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