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Ifill talks Adegbile's Senate Vote, History of Attacks on Civil Rights Defenders

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Friday, March 7, 2014

In an op-ed published at The Root, Sherrilyn Ifill highlighted the pattern of opposition to civil rights nominees, particularly LDF alums Bill Lann Lee, Lani Guinier, and Deval Patrick. Last week, the Senate failed to confirm Debo Adegbile for the position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice, in a move that President Obama described as a "travesty." Mr. Adegbile was the target of a deeply unfair smear campaign.

On Joy Reid's new MSNBC show, Sherrilyn Ifill discussed the Senate's deeply disappointing vote on Debo Adegbile's nomination. Watch that clip below.

The History of Attacks by the Right on Civil Rights Defenders

Your Take: When Debo Adegbile was rejected by the Senate for a justice position, he joined other civil rights advocates who have been attacked.

It’s true that some U.S senators voted to kill the confirmation of Debo Adegbile as assistant attorney general for civil rights because they were concerned about the representation provided by Adegbile as a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund to a man convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. Even though LDF’s representation came 30 years after the trial of the Mumia Abu-Jamal, and even though the LDF’s argument that the jury that sentenced Abu-Jamal to death had been instructed improperly was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals—twice—some senators bowed to the pressure, demanding the rejection of Adegbile. But the Abu-Jamal case is not the real reason Adegbile’s vote failed. Instead, this week’s vote represents another effort in a long line of efforts to discredit civil rights law and those who have committed their professional lives to its enforcement.

Opposition to housing and employment discrimination laws, voting rights and affirmative action has been at the core of resistance to the confirmation of candidates with a demonstrated commitment to the robust and vigorous enforcement of laws protecting against racial discrimination for decades. Thus it is no surprise that the most vicious resistance to nominees selected to lead the division of the Justice Department charged with enforcing civil rights law is reserved for lawyers from the organization that is largely responsible for the creation of modern civil rights law. The LDF litigated the Brown v. Board of Education case, and for more than 50 years has been regarded as the nation’s premier civil rights law organization. 

Lawyers from the LDF have been intimately involved in setting the standards for civil rights law practice and for aggressively pushing for legal frameworks vilified on the right. These include the concepts of vote dilution, disparate impact, affirmative action and a host of criminal justice protections. These standards are not fringe propositions offered by a civil rights group. They are the standards currently enshrined in the law—the very laws enforced by the civil rights division.

Adegbile is not the first LDF lawyer to be the subject of a full-throated attack by the right after being nominated to head the civil rights division. President Clinton nominated a succession of LDF lawyers to serve in the top civil rights post. Each was subjected to a targeted opposition campaign based on their support for antidiscrimination law. In 1993, it was Lani Guinier, at that time recognized as a leading force in modern voting rights litigation and a tenured law professor at Yale Law School, who was subject to a scorched-earth campaign by right-wing forces when she was nominated to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights. 

While at LDF, she led the field of voting-rights litigation, shaping the standards now enshrined in law for the litigation of cases under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. When she was nominated by President Clinton, forces on the right launched a virulent and coarse attack on her scholarly writings. They accused professor Guinier of being a “quota queen” even though her scholarship—which was published in some of the most selected and highly regarded law journals—never advocated the use of quotas. After weeks of ugly attacks, President Clinton withdrew professor Guinier’s nomination.

Click here to read the full piece. 


Statement by Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF

03/05/2014

I am deeply disappointed that the United States Senate failed to confirm Debo Adegbile for the position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice. The Senate voted against cloture (closing debate) on the nomination. We call upon Senator Reid to bring the nomination of Adegbile before the U.S. Senate again.

As one of the preeminent civil rights lawyers of his generation, Adegbile has committed most of his life's work to advancing civil rights in America.  There is no question that Adegbile is immensely qualified for the position. He is a man of integrity, accomplishment, and passionate commitment to civil rights.

Unfortunately, Adegbile has been subjected to an unfair smear campaign. Adegbile was attacked because the NAACP Legal Defense Fund became counsel for Mumia Abu-Jamal during his tenure here.  The NAACP Legal Defense Fund's involvement in Mumia Abu-Jamal's case reflects its institutional commitment to ensuring that the criminal justice system is administered fairly and in compliance with the U.S. Constitution for all Americans, no matter how controversial.

Many public servants, including Chief Justice John Roberts, have donated pro bono time to the representation of death-sentenced prisoners in controversial cases. Ultimately, a federal appeals court agreed with us and ruled twice that the instructions given to Mumia Abu-Jamal's sentencing jury were incorrect and violated the Constitution.  Thus, as explained by the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board, Adegbile  "worked for an organization that believes in leaving no stone unturned in seeking justice for all."

Much of the attention on the nomination has centered on the attacks, rather than the full story of Adegbile’s tremendous contribution to the civil rights movement.

After working in private practice, Adegbile joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the nation's leading civil rights law firm and a completely separate entity from the NAACP.  At LDF,  Adegbile quickly rose to become the Director of Litigation and later served as Acting President and Director-Counsel and Special Counsel.

During his 12-year tenure at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court twice (Shelby County v. Holder and Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder).  In addition to being one of the nation's leading voting rights attorneys, Adegbile also worked on education, employment and criminal justice issues. 

During his career, Adegbile has represented voters, students, firefighters, police officers,  Hurricane Katrina evacuees, families struggling with foreclosure, and victims of domestic violence. 

His nomination received widespread and bipartisan support by state attorneys general, prosecutors (including a prosecutor in Zacarias Moussai's trial), the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, Supreme Court lawyers, and a bipartisan group of members of the bar. Eighty-four civil rights, disability, women's, LGBT, labor and other organizations jointly submitted a powerful letter in support of his nomination.

Adegible went from facing homelessness as a child to arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court. Half Irish and half Nigerian, Adegbile was born in New York City and raised by a single mother.

The President of the American Bar Association, James Silkenat, described Adegbile's work as "consistent with the finest tradition of this country's legal profession."

Three NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers have held this critically important position.

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Click here to read LDF's previous statements on Debo's nomination and testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee

Click here to read LDF's statement regarding representing Mumia Abu-Jamal