March 5 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Senate blocked President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the government’s top civil rights enforcer after Republicans and law enforcement groups objected to his role in the case of a Black Panther activist convicted of killing a white Philadelphia police officer.
By a 47-52 vote, the Senate today fell short of the majority needed to cut off debate and move to a confirmation vote on Debo Adegbile’s nomination to be assistant attorney general for civil rights.
The vote marked the first time the Senate had blocked or rejected an Obama nominee since Democrats forced a rules change in November to require a simple majority instead of 60 votes to limit debate on most presidential appointments. Eight Democrats joined all Republicans in blocking the nominee.
The Fraternal Order of Police and other law enforcement groups opposed Adegbile’s nomination, citing his role as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Inc. helping overturn Mumia Abu-Jamal’s his death sentence for the murder of the white police officer.
That decision to vacate the death sentence came a quarter-century after the conviction of Abu-Jamal, a Black Panther activist who has become known as a jail-house author. He’s now serving a life sentence after prosecutors declined to retry the case.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said he was “very disappointed” that Adegbile’s nomination was defeated even after direct appeals from Obama’s administration to members of their own party.
“It was a full-court press from the White House, and we worked with them in whipping this: I’m very disappointed,” Durbin said.
Adegbile was “eminently well qualified” and should have been confirmed, Durbin said.
In a statement after the vote, Obama said the Senate’s failure to confirm Adegbile is a “travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant” whose qualifications are “impeccable.”
Senate Republicans cited the Philadelphia case in their opposition to the nominee.
Adegbile’s “advocacy on behalf of the nation’s most notorious cop killer calls into question his fitness for the powerful government position he seeks,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a floor speech.
Later, McConnell said Obama wouldn’t have tried to push through the nomination under the old rules that required 60 votes. In the end, Adegbile “was too difficult for even seven Democrats to swallow.”
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, issued a statement criticizing the vote as a demonstration of “the worst elements of our political system.”
“Unhinged rhetoric trumped substance, racialized language triumphed over thoughtful discourse, and our legal and political system will pay the price,” he said.
Democrats defended Adegbile’s record, maintaining that like all lawyers, he can’t be blamed for the actions of his client, who was convicted more than two decades before he got involved in the case.
“John Adams set the standard when he made the unpopular decision to represent British soldiers on the eve of the Revolutionary War” said Durbin of Illinois.
Republicans argued that Adegbile joined a cause that inaccurately portrayed Abu-Jamal as a victim of a racially biased criminal justice system.
In his floor speech, McConnell said Adegbile overstepped his role as a courtroom advocate by attending rallies for Abu-Jamal and in statements issued by the Legal Defense Fund.
He said that in a 2011 press release the group portrayed Abu-Jamal as a “symbol” of “racial injustice” and that his conviction and sentence were “relics of a time and place that was notorious for police abuse and racial discrimination.”
Adegbile is “no John Adams defending the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre,” said Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican.
In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said Adegbile’s “record was either misunderstood, or intentionally misrepresented for the sake of politics.” The vote is “a very dangerous precedent” when “individual lawyers can have their otherwise sterling qualifications denigrated based solely on the clients that their organizations represent.”
Durbin said “not one single senator” objected in 2005 to John Robert’s representation of a Florida death-row inmate convicted of eight murders before his confirmation to be the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Adegbile is a senior counsel, said those who know him well “can’t recognize the caricature some are trying to paint” of Adegbile.
Adegbile didn’t become involved in the case until after a federal district court judge in 2006 had overturned the death penalty, Democrats maintained. His role was limited to filing briefs with the 3rd U.S. Court of Appeals, which in 2011 upheld the lower court’s decision that struck down the death sentence.
Raised by a single mother through periods of homelessness in New York, Adegbile is a graduate of Connecticut College and New York University’s law school. He was a child actor on “Sesame Street” in the 1970s.
The eight Democrats who joined Republicans in blocking the nomination were Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, John Walsh of Montana and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Reid switched his vote to ‘no’ so he could have the procedural standing to file a motion to reconsider cloture.
Pryor and Walsh are on the ballot this year in states that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012.
They’re rated two of the most vulnerable Democrats in November’s election by the non-partisan Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report. Walsh is standing for election for the first time since he was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Max Baucus, now U.S. ambassador to China.
Casey and Coons represent voters who get their information from television and radio in Philadelphia, where the case has been a source of controversy for 30 years.