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Senate Race-Baiting? Dems Join GOP to Block Obama DOJ Pick Tied to Legal Defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal

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In a stunning vote, a group of U.S. Senate Democrats has broken ranks to join Republicans in rejecting President Obama’s pick to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Debo Adegbile. The confirmation fight focused almost solely on Adegbile’s role in the legal defense of imprisoned Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer, despite Abu-Jamal’s longstanding position of being not guilty. Adegbile was part of a team of lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who successfully argued the trial judge’s jury instructions violated Abu-Jamal’s rights. Adegbile’s supporters say the attacks on him mark a new form of Willie Horton politics and race baiting. We discuss the controversy with two guests: Johanna Fernández, professor of history at Baruch College-CUNY and a coordinator with the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, and Ryan Haygood, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Political Participation Group.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A group of Senate Democrats broke ranks with President Obama Wednesday as they joined Republicans to block his pick to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. In a 52-to-47 vote, the Senate rejected the nomination of Debo Adegbile, the former acting head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Adegbile is a widely respected lawyer who had led the group’s defense of voting rights.

AMY GOODMAN: But the confirmation fight focused almost solely on Adegbile’s role in the legal defense of imprisoned Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund argued the trial judge’s instructions to the jury violated Abu-Jamal’s rights. Federal courts agreed and in 2011 ordered a new sentencing hearing for Abu-Jamal, a move that eventually took him off death row. Senator Ted Cruz was one of several Republicans who spoke out against Adegbile.

SEN. TED CRUZ: The Fraternal Order of Police vehemently opposes this nomination. According to a letter written by the president of the FOP, Adegbile’s nomination only exacerbates the, quote, “growing division and distrust” towards local law enforcement agencies, a trend that has continued from the time now Labor Secretary Thomas Perez was leading the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Peter Kirsanow, a member on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote, quote, “Responsible people should agree that going out of your way to defend a convicted cop-killer long after it has become unequivocally clear that he was guilty and had suffered no violation of his civil rights disqualifies one from serving as the head of a division of the U.S. Department of Justice.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who voted against Debo Adegbile’s confirmation. Seven Democrats joined Republicans in opposing Adegbile: Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, John Walsh of Montana and Chris Coons of Delaware. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also voted no, which, under Senate rules, allows him to bring the nomination back to the floor at a later date. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin defended Adegbile’s nomination.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: The Bush administration’s solicitor general, Paul Clement, stated—and I quote—”I have litigated both with and against Debo and have heard him argue in the Supreme Court. I have always found him to be a formidable advocate of the highest intellect, skills and integrity.” Mr. Adegbile’s representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal does not mean that he lacks respect for the rule of law, and it certainly should not disqualify him for this important civil rights job. In fact, his willingness to represent an unpopular defendant in an emotionally charged case demonstrates his appreciation for the rule of law, as well as his respect for the criminal justice system. His critics have attempted to characterize him as someone who actively sought out this case, someone who disparaged the officer who was cut down in the line of duty, Officer Faulkner, and someone who was responsible for Abu-Jamal’s death sentence being overturned. Each of these characterizations is wrong, inaccurate and unfair.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin speaking Wednesday.

President Obama called the vote a “travesty. Obama said, quote, “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.”

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Johanna Fernández is with us, professor of history at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, one of the coordinators of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home. She’s editor of the collection of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essays, Writing on the Wall. Ryan Haygood is the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Political Participation Group.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Why don’t we begin with you, Ryan? The significance of Debo Adegbile’s rejection by the Democrats as well as the Republicans of the Senate?

RYAN HAYGOOD: Sure. I mean, I appreciate you having me on the show, Amy. It’s really hard to overstate what the U.S. Senate did yesterday. In a shameful vote, the Senate essentially decided that being a lawyer disqualifies one from holding a legal position. More specifically, the U.S. Senate essentially held yesterday that serving this country as a public servant in the highest aspirations of the legal tradition and being one of the pre-eminent civil rights litigators in America disqualifies one—here, Debo Adegbile—from serving as the top lawyer in the Civil Rights Division for the Department of Justice.

And what’s striking in watching the debate yesterday on the Senate floor is that none of the discussion was about the merits, the substance of Debo’s qualifications. There’s no disagreement about him being a pre-eminent civil rights attorney whose worldview and experience speak to his qualification for this position. What the Senate lacked yesterday was the political will to do the right thing and give the American people what they deserve in having a person who is eminently qualified, like Debo Adegbile, serve in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, and the amazing thing about this is, apparently, his involvement in this appeal of the death sentence was almost tangential. It wasn’t even—he wasn’t even a key lawyer in the case. Can you talk about who was actually conducting or involved in the case for the Legal Defense Fund?

RYAN HAYGOOD: Sure. The case was chiefly handled, expertly, by the director of our criminal justice group, Christina Swarns. Debo was overseeing all of the litigation in the Legal Defense Fund, which included this case involving Mr. Mumia Abu-Jamal. And to your point, when you focus on what was really at issue in this case, there were four federal judges, two of whom were appointed by Ronald Reagan, one of whom was appointed by George Bush, which found that there was a constitutional violation at issue in this case, involving the jury instructions, and that it was appropriate for Mr. Abu-Jamal’s death sentence to be altered to life without parole. So, even when you focus on the merits of the issue at hand, you find that Debo’s involvement in this case, though he wasn’t primarily responsible for representing Mr. Abu-Jamal, that his involvement is actually in line with the highest traditions of our legal profession, which is affording everyone their constitutional rights afforded to any criminal defendant.

AMY GOODMAN: His name on several of the documents because he was the acting head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund?

RYAN HAYGOOD: That’s right. That’s right. As the acting head of LDF, Debo was on all of the legal briefs. In this case, he appeared on two briefs before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and one brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Johanna Fernández, the significance of the ability of the lobby of police organizations around the country to essentially tar Adegbile with Mumia Abu-Jamal and the refusal to accept, by the police organizations, that the courts have already ruled, one, that the death penalty in this case was not properly administered or ruled to Mumia?

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Well, I think that we have to outline what the strategy was that was used to tar Adegbile, because this has been used historically to dismiss nominees and elected officials who are not in line with the interests of a particular section of society. So what exactly did they do? They essentially appealed to the racism of white voters by creating a target. And this target is Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom they depict as a monster, unrepentant, cop killer. And then they link him to Adegbile in order to scare Democrats from supporting him, especially in the run-up to an election. Now, I think that it’s important to note that in the post-civil rights and Black Power era, the alleged killing of a police officer is synonymous with the notion of a white—a black man killing—raping, excuse me—a white man raping a white woman. And this then becomes the basis upon which a legal lynching happens. And this narrative is deployed—it’s the Southern strategy. It’s essentially deployed to instill fear and intimidation in a white, latently racist voter population.

And, you know, at some point we have to say that Mumia was lynched in the courts. Part of what the Fraternal Order of Police says is that the movement to free Mumia cares not about the pain of Maureen Faulkner. But part of what we have to say is that justice for Maureen Faulkner is tied to finding out who killed Officer Faulkner. One of the most important things in this case is that there was a fourth person at the scene of the crime, and that person was seen running away from the crime scene and was identified as the shooter. But that detail was suppressed at trial by the prosecution. The question is, why? We believe that Mumia is innocent and justice for Maureen Faulkner is tied to finding out who killed Officer Faulkner. Why doesn’t the Fraternal Order of Police want to discover the truth in this case?

AMY GOODMAN: This is Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania opposing Adegbile’s nomination last month. As he addressed his colleagues, he stood before an oversized photograph of Daniel Faulkner, the police officer Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing.

SEN. PAT TOOMEY: When they should have been pursuing their historic role in providing the truth and justice for American people, they were advancing neither cause. It’s also important to point out that this was never a case of a criminal deserving a legal defense. OK? Criminals do deserve appropriate legal counsel in their defense. The fact is, the trial had occurred decades ago. Abu-Jamal had multiple high-cost lawyers volunteering their time. He had plenty of lawyers. He didn’t need more lawyers. What Mr. Adegbile did was he decided to join a political cause. That’s what he decided to do. That’s what this was all about. And in my view, by doing so, he demonstrated his own contempt for—and, frankly, a willingness to undermine—the criminal justice system of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, where Mumia Abu-Jamal, of course, is in prison. Johanna Fernández, can you talk about the campaign to oppose Debo Adegbile? What happened in the Senate? I heard a lot from the opposition in this period of time leading up to the vote; I heard very little from groups supporting Debo Adegbile.

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: So, the campaign against Debo Adegbile was initiated by the Fraternal Order of Police, and it began when they wrote a letter to the president of the United States that essentially demonized Mumia Abu-Jamal and linked Debo Adegbile to Mumia’s alleged shooting of the police officer. And then they proceeded to lobby politicians, like Senator Toomey, but also the first black DA of Philadelphia, Seth Williams. Both of those, Senator Toomey and Seth Williams, ended up writing a letter to The Wall Street Journal filled with lies both about Mumia’s case and a misrepresentation of Debo Adegbile’s association with the case. It was a vociferous campaign, and it was a grassroots campaign. And this is what the right does. They actually went into the floor of the Senate about three weeks ago when an initial vote was taken, and they had literature about Mumia Abu-Jamal and Debo Adegbile filled with lies. And part of what we learn from this example is that if voices of conscience do not organize, like the right does, to present the truth and the facts of the case, they end up winning.

RYAN HAYGOOD: And I tell you, part of the reason why the Senate’s vote yesterday is so tragic is because, as a practical matter, it now leaves the head of the Civil Rights Division position open at a pivotal time in American history where we’re dealing with all manner of inequality, in the civil rights context, in the Stand Your Ground law context. There is the issue of the role of race in higher education. And for me as a voting rights lawyer, one of the more important issues is how do we respond to the Supreme Court’s devastating decision in the Shelby County case last term.

What’s striking about the Senate’s vote against Debo yesterday is that he was one of the people who took the lead in helping to develop the record that Congress used to reauthorize this core provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, and it was Debo Adegbile who twice defended what Congress did before the U.S. Supreme Court, first successfully in the MUD case, and secondly, most recently, when the Supreme Court in Shelby County struck a core provision of the Voting Rights Act. So, the Senate—the U.S. Senate’s vote yesterday was really a vote against its own interests. Last term, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially gave Congress a vote of no confidence when it struck what Congress did by striking a core provision of the Voting Rights Act, and it was Debo who was one of the chief defenders of Congress’s work before the Supreme Court, two times, in some of the most important voting rights cases in our generation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, isn’t it entirely possible that the real reason behind the attempt to get him out was precisely that he would become, as head of the Civil Rights Division, a main proponent within the federal government of holding up the voting rights of African Americans and other minorities, just at the time when we have these elections coming up?

RYAN HAYGOOD: Sure, I think that’s right. But I also think that there was some interest convergence here. You know, I think it’s significant that Congress essentially was given the vote of no confidence by the Supreme Court and that the Supreme Court essentially said, “Look, your power to legislate around a core—a fundamental right, the right to vote, is being constrained by the Supreme Court decision.” And Congress really had an opportunity to respond by working with Debo, and the Department of Justice under his leadership, to enact new voting rights legislation that would pass and that would restore what was lost in the Shelby County decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Chris Coons of Delaware was one of the seven Democrats who voted against Debo’s nomination. He said, quote, “At 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. The vote I cast today was one of the most difficult I have taken since joining the Senate, but I believe it to be right for the people I represent.”

And then there was Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator who voted also to oppose Adegbile’s nomination. Her office sent a fundraising email that claimed, quote, “If there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on, it’s that every American deserves the right to vote. It’s one of our most basic rights—but right now it’s under attack.” Ryan Haygood, your response to this?

RYAN HAYGOOD: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that could—I don’t think that could be more disingenuous, right? I think it’s well known by all in the civil rights community that Debo—some of Debo’s most important work was in the voting rights context. He would have been one of the chief champions in this moment to ensure that voters of color, in particular, aren’t made more vulnerable by the Supreme Court’s decision. He would have worked with Congress to get new voting rights legislation passed—to do precisely what Senator Heitkamp was expressing to her funders. And so, her vote against him is actually a vote against doing the thing that she promises to do here in this email to her funders.

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: I think that at stake here is what the Fraternal Order of Police and its allies feared. Here you had the possibility of Debo Adegbile, someone who’s familiar with the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal and who’s interested in issues of social justice, in the Department of Justice. What the Fraternal Order of Police feared was that, perhaps, with Debo in office, the Department of Justice might take on this case of investigating the police. One of the least-known facts in this case is that a third of the police officers involved in collecting evidence in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s trial were later convicted for corruption and tampering with evidence to obtain a conviction. And in 1979, the Department of Justice conducted an investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department, the largest ever in the history of the United States, that concluded that the level of brutality and corruption in the police department in Philadelphia, quote, “shocks the conscience.” That’s what the Department of Justice concluded in 1979 at around the same time that Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted. And what the Fraternal Order of Police feared, which has an office in Washington, D.C., and initiated its organization in Philadelphia, is that they might actually come down with the election and nomination of Debo Adegbile.

But the problem is not just historical in this case. The Philadelphia police is infamous for police brutality. The latest case of brutality involves Darrin Manning, a 16-year-old boy whose testicles were ruptured in a stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia. And that group of people in Philadelphia, those people who are fighting for justice for Darrin Manning, are also calling for an investigation of the police in all of Philadelphia. And if the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal enters into a conversation in the Department of Justice, it’s over for the department of the police—of the police department in Philadelphia. Why? Because this is an international case. And as soon as there is any investigation, a lot of people are going to come down, including politicians, who have actually received money from the Fraternal Order of Police and who have actually run their campaigns on the execution and incarceration of Mumia Abu-Jamal. So the stakes politically are pretty high.

RYAN HAYGOOD: I think what this discussion brings to mind is that we really are in this pivotal time where there are lots of important issues in the civil rights context that must be addressed. But the Senate’s vote yesterday has provided us with no head of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, at a time when we are upon the 49th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march that folks know from Selma, Alabama, which ultimately resulted in the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. We’re celebrating that this year after a Supreme Court decision that struck a core part of it. This weekend in Selma, Alabama, the LDF will be hosting a voting rights workshop, and our focus will really be on assessing where we are in this moment and how we can, in the voting rights context, in particular, ensure that voters of color aren’t made even more vulnerable by what the Supreme Court did.

But I also think that another takeaway from the Senate votes—the Senate’s vote yesterday is that there is really a chilling effect, right? So, lawyers like me who practice in the public sphere and who are civil rights lawyers were told essentially by Congress yesterday that being a lawyer will really disqualify you from a legal position, particularly in the government context. And that’s what I think is the most shameful takeaway, particularly for those members of the Senate who themselves were lawyers.

AMY GOODMAN: That you would be afraid to take on difficult cases.

RYAN HAYGOOD: Absolutely. There is—

AMY GOODMAN: That it would jeopardize any kind of political career.

RYAN HAYGOOD: Right. I think that—I think that’s right. I think the takeaway from yesterday’s vote is that if you are interested in a career in government, you ought to tread very, very carefully about the kinds of cases you take. I think it’s very true that if Chief Justice John Roberts today went before the Senate, given his pro bono assistance to a Florida man who was convicted of killing eight people, that he’d have a very, very steep hill to climb in getting the Senate to confirm him.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much both for being with us, Ryan Haygood, former colleague of Debo Adegbile, now director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Political Participation Group, which promotes the full, equal and active participation of black people in the democratic process. And thank you very much to Johanna Fernández, a professor of history at Baruch College here in New York City. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Angela Davis joins us. Stay with us.

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