Over One Thousand Law Professors and Deans Express Concern Over Blocked Adegbile Nomination

A letter from more than 1,000 law professors and deans this week questioned the message the Senate sent in March when it filibustered the nomination of Debo Adegbile as assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice.

The letter was sent to Sens. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., and Charles Grassley, R. Iowa. – the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

“While we do not take a position on this or any other nominee, we are deeply concerned that the vote and the rationale publicly articulated by a majority of Senators rejecting Mr. Adegbile sends a message that goes to several core values of the legal profession,” the letter states. “These include the right to counsel, the importance of pro bono representation, and the importance of ensuring that constitutional protections are afforded to every criminal defendant regardless of the crimes for which they are accused.”

Despite Adegbile’s undeniable qualifications, his nomination drew criticism from Republican senators because of his position at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and its representation of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal – a representation that LDF’s President Sherrilyn Ifill describes as “consistent with the highest principles of due process set forth by our Constitution.” And as the letter from the law professors notes, LDF’s position in the case was upheld twice by a federal court of appeals.

“Providing representation to defendants on death row is among the most challenging, resource-intensive and critically important pro bono counsel a lawyer can provide. Lawyers engaged in this work should be commended rather than denounced for their hard-work and commitment to ensuring that the protections of the Constitution are extended even to those accused of heinous crimes,” the letter states.

Throughout his confirmation process, Adegbile was subject to race-baiting that became particularly virulent when the Washington Times published what Leadership Conference President Wade Henderson called a “buffoonish and racially tinged caricature” that is “beyond the pale of acceptable mainstream debate. This cartoon is reminiscent of the racist iconography of late 19th century America designed to dehumanize and stereotype African Americans who were only beginning to throw off the shackles of chattel slavery.”

In the same statement, Henderson called for a reasoned and substantive conversation about Adegbile’s nomination, though the Senate eventually blocked him in March when seven Democrats joined every Republican in voting no on the nomination.

It was the same Senate, as the letter notes, that has in its ranks 57 lawyers who know all too well that lawyers are not their clients and that “The constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel would be turned on its head if the contrary view were advanced,” according to the law professors.

If this standard had been applied to candidates in the past, they note, then President John Adams, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Chief Justice John Roberts would have all been denied confirmation.

“It is our sincere hope that the United States Senate will evaluate future lawyer nominees based on their integrity, experience, professionalism and leadership, and not on the popularity of the clients they represent. To do otherwise, strikes at the core values of the profession which we prepare our students to lead.”