A protestor stands next to an image of Abu-Jamal in 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama’s nomination of Debo P. Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has unleashed a decades-old racial feud centered on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal that threatens to cross partisan lines and give credence to Senate Republican worries that more controversial nominees will be confirmed since Democrats eased the process last year.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on cloture on the Adegbile nomination Monday evening. Adegbile, senior counsel for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., previously worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which helped commute the death sentence of Abu-Jamal, a black nationalist who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of white Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
Senate Democrats control 55 votes in the Senate and only need 51 to clear the hurdle. But it is likely to be close, as one of their own, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania announced Friday he would oppose the nomination, and several Democrats up for re-election in swing or conservative states might think twice about wading into the hornets’ nest that surrounds Abu-Jamal.
The case goes back to a dark period in Philadelphia history, when the MOVE group of black separatists clashed frequently with the Philadelphia political and law enforcement community. The case bounced around the appeals process for years, with the backdrop of continued violence between MOVE, which Abu-Jamal was affiliated with, and the predominantly white police force. The feud reached a nadir in 1985, when police allowed a MOVE compound in West Philadelphia to burn in a confrontation, and the conflagration went on to consume several city blocks. That incident is the topic of a recent documentary by Jason Osder, “Let the Fire Burn,” which has renewed interest in the conflict and stories behind it, such as Abu-Jamal’s case.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said now that Democrats don’t need Republicans to cut off debate on most nominations, “More extreme judicial nominees, more extreme executive branch nominees” will be the consequence “when you don’t have to reach across the aisle.”
“Your bases begin to have a louder voice,” Graham said. “The hard left has more say when you don’t have to pick up a Republican, and that would be true on our side.”
With Casey’s opposition, the Adegbile vote is on no easy path. If no Republicans vote to cut off the debate, it could be a difficult vote for Democrats up for re-election, such as Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Democrats dismissed the GOP concern, citing pushback from the Congressional Black Caucus over recent Obama judicial nominees for Georgia that they think are too conservative.
“No, not at all,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., when asked if Adegbile was the beginning of a trend of more extreme nominees.
“I am supporting him, and I have met him, and I have carefully examined his record,” Durbin said. “The accusations they are making against him are fundamentally and totally unfair.”
“I think the accusation is that the president is picking someone for the Division of Civil Rights who has been a leader in civil rights,” Durbin continued, adding that Republicans have “historically been troubled by … appointments [to the post] no matter who they are.”
Democrats last November used a procedural maneuver to lower the hurdle to overcome a filibuster of all but Supreme Court nominations to a simple majority from the previous 60-vote threshold.
Graham and other Republicans said one of the remaining options the minority has to block objectionable nominations is to try to deny them 51 Democratic votes.
That’s the strategy Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., who is leading the opposition against the Adegbile, is employing.
“That’s the only strategy that’s available to me,” Toomey said. “I think he is a very ill-considered choice, and so I hope to persuade some of my Democratic colleagues of that.”
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed — penned with District Attorney Seth Williams, a Democrat — Toomey charged that Adegbile and the Legal Defense Fund “actively fanned the racial firestorm” while defending Abu-Jamal. They urged him to withdraw his name as he did previously three years ago when being considered for a judicial appointment.
“Appellate lawyers echoed their client’s antics in legal maneuvers that made a mockery of the justice system,” the op-ed said. “These appeals primarily functioned as a stage for Abu-Jamal’s hateful ideologies, painting him as the unjustly accused victim of a racist conspiracy.”
At his confirmation hearing last month, Adegbile denied such allegations and called Faukner’s murder “a tragic loss.”
“It is a tremendous loss to lose a civil servant, a public law enforcement officer, serving the people, and I would never personally or professionally say anything negative about that horrific loss,” Adegbile said. “My sympathy goes to his family, to the community in Philadelphia, and it would be completely contrary to my person, to make any negative comment about that particular situation.”
At the hearing, Leahy and other Democrats voiced admiration for Adegbile, who overcame poverty and homelessness to graduate from Connecticut College and New York University School of Law. “A remarkable example of the American Dream,” Leahy said.
While he is opposed by law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, Adegbile is buoyed by a raft of civil rights and legal groups, including the American Bar Association and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. On Friday, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Editorial Board defended the nomination by writing: “To argue that Adegbile, one of the country’s foremost legal scholars, especially when it comes to civil rights law, should be disqualified from seeking the Justice post because he participated in Abu-Jamal’s appeals, is an affront to what it means to live in America, a country that allows every convict to exhaustively appeal a verdict, even when all the prior evidence appears to have assured his guilt.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are lobbying senators vigorously on Adegbile’s behalf.
“The Congressional Black Caucus … [is] trying to lobby any and all senators we can to take this vote in the affirmative,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo. “There is no value in continuing to split the country.”
CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, invoked another infamous racial political wedge issue in the current fight.
“It is like a Willie Horton situation,” Fudge said of the infamous 1988 presidential campaign ad. “I think it is patently unfair. I think they have spun it in a way that would demonize Debo, when in fact he has a stellar record and he has never done anything that should prevent him from being in this position.”
The ad portrayed Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as soft on crime, citing the case of Horton, a convicted murderer who utilized a prison furlough program in Massachusetts. The ad is regarded as classic race-baiting, because Horton was black.
Niels Lesniewski has covered the Senate for CQ Roll Call since January 2010, and more recently as a staff writer and resident procedure guru for Roll Call. Niels holds degrees in both government and theater but sometimes can't tell the difference between the two. @nielslesniewski
Humberto Sanchez covers the Senate for Roll Call. Prior to joining, he covered the budget and appropriations process for Congress Daily/NJ Daily for three years.@hsanchez128