In a surprising development, the Senate today voted against confirmation of Debo Adegbile to be the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Adegbile’s nomination stirred controversy because of his involvement with a NAACP brief that was filed on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal, a black social activist, murdered Daniel Faulkner, a white police officer, in 1981. His case has since become a contentious racial hot point in the city of Philadelphia.
The NAACP sought, and eventually won, a reversal of the death penalty sentence for Abu-Jamal. He is still imprisoned, with no possibility of parole.
Last week, Senator Bob Casey announced that he would be opposing Adegbile’s nomination. Additionally, his colleague Senator Toomey led the effort against Adegbile, including writing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and holding a conference call with reporters.
It seems that the Obama Administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid believed the nomination would pass. Under the rules Democrats fought for last year, executive branch nominees only need 51 votes. Vice President Biden also presided over the vote, a rare occurrence which suggests Sen. Reid thought he had at least 50 votes (the Vice President breaks any tie).
Instead eight Democrats voted against the nomination. Casey was among them along with six red-state Senators: Mark Pryor (AR), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WV), John Walsh (MT) and Joe Donnelly (IN). Perhaps most surprisingly, Delaware Senator Chris Coons also voted against the nomination.
Sen. Coons had already voted for Adegbile in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the nomination was passed on a party-line 10-8 vote. It is possible, however, that the Delaware Senator feared repercussions in his state which borders Philadelphia. Coons is facing re-election this year and cited the Abu-Jamal case as the reason for his switch.
Toomey voiced his support soon after the vote.
“Today is a good day for Pennsylvania, for America, and for those who believe in justice. It was a hard fought victory to the end. I appreciate the bipartisan support of my colleagues — including Senators Casey, Coons, and Manchin — and from Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams in opposing the confirmation of Mr. Adegbile.
“Today the Senate affirmed that our criminal justice system must never be abused to propagate a dishonest, radical agenda. The American people, especially law enforcement and Maureen Faulkner, deserve better.”
The story of the vote, as with all things in the Senate, is complicated. The final vote was 47-52, but Senator Reid had to vote against it for procedural reasons so that it may be brought up again in the future. Before then, the vote stood at 48-51. Therefore, Coons decision may have been affected by the fact that his support still would’ve still left Adegbile a vote short.
Several vulnerable red-states Democrats voted to support the nomination, including Mark Begich (AK), Mary Landrieu (LA) and Kay Hagan (NC). Since these Senators are facing re-election this year, it is highly unlikely they anticipated that the vote would fail.
The most likely scenario is that one or more red-state Democrats who are not up for re-election this year (Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin) promised Reid their vote but backed out.
Nonetheless, Casey’s strong opposition gave many of these Democrats cover and had he and his neighboring blue-state Sen. Chris Coons supported Adegbile he would’ve won the vote.
The White House issued a statement after the vote calling condemning the Senate’s action.
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. Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable,” their statement asserted. “As a lawyer, Mr. Adgebile has played by the rules. And now, Washington politics have used the rules against him. 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.”
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks), who was one of the first to take issue with Abu-Jamal, praised the decision.
“Today, a bipartisan majority of Senators stood on the side of the law enforcement community and the family of Officer Daniel Faulkner in opposing the misguided nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice,” Fitzpatrick said.