On March 5, 1770, a group of British soldiers fired into an unruly crowd, killing five American civilians in an incident known as the Boston Massacre. Facing murder charges and potentially the death penalty, the soldiers had difficulty finding someone to defend them in court.
John Adams agreed to represent them not because he sympathized with their circumstances but because he believed that they had a right to a legal defense. He succeeded, too, as six of the soldiers were acquitted and two convicted only of manslaughter.
That Mr. Adams took up such an unpopular cause was not held against him. He went on to become the second president of the United States while the principle he so bravely stood up for, the right of an accused criminal to legal representation, was guaranteed all future Americans under the Sixth Amendment.
Yet exactly 244 years to the day later, the U.S. Senate has decided that a lawyer who is involved in the defense of an accused murderer — in a case where there were legitimate concerns about whether that defendant was the victim of racial discrimination in the jury selection process — is not fit to serve as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
By a 52-47 vote, the nomination of Debo Adegbile was blocked for one reason — his association with Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1981 of murdering Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia police officer. That involvement angered police organizations who mustered support for their cause not only from Republicans but also seven Democrats in the Senate.
So what exactly was Mr. Adegbile's crime? He worked at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund when it argued successfully to commute Abu-Jamal's death sentence. And it was a pretty tangential role; too, as University of Maryland Law Professor and current NAACP defense fund President Sherrilyn Ifill has pointed out, Mr. Adegbile did not become involved in the case until 2011 and was never actually on the defense team. (That Mr. Adegbile did defend the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court likely did not endear him to certain Red State senators, however.)
Make no mistake, this was all about the right to counsel and the unwillingness of the Senate to defend that principle. Some have suggested Mr. Adegbile was not just a lawyer in the Philadelphia case but a political advocate — as if standing up against racial discrimination in society and particularly in the judicial system, the fundamental purpose of the NAACP, should be disqualifying for the nation's top civil rights post.
Senate Republicans, of course, took to the circumstances like flies drawn to honey. They saw an opportunity to embarrass the White House, rail against a notorious cop-killer in an election year and thwart recent changes in the Senate rules perpetrated by Democrats that diminished their ability to block nominees.
We hold no sympathy for those who murder police officers. Abu-Jamal sits in prison, which is entirely appropriate given the facts of the case. Nor do we even begrudge the efforts of police organizations or the family and friends of the victim to advocate against a murderer. But we also believe in the Constitution and the right to legal representation — not timid, half-hearted, going-through-the-motions advocacy but full-throated, committed, zealous representation by qualified individuals trying to rout out injustice.
It is only through this process of legal confrontation, a well-qualified prosector or prosecutors on one side and an equally vigorous defense team on the other, that true justice can be found. Otherwise, the U.S. judicial system would be a charade, a kangaroo court, and guilt would be determined by popular opinion or government fiat. A fear of that prospect is exactly what guided John Adams more than two centuries ago.
Shame on Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, John Walsh of Montana, Chris Coons of Delaware, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. If their views prevailed, the accused would have no right to the best possible defense — only to a defense that is politically palatable.
Mr. Adegbile likely won't be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. That's a loss not only for him but for the country, as he is widely viewed as a leading expert in his field. In a statement, President Barack Obama called it a "travesty," and it is, not because the White House suffered a political loss, but because one of the nation's more important principles suffered a significant one as well.
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