Lost in the U.S. Senate

The Senate's deliberations on Debo Adgebile to head the Justice Department's civil rights division nomination is not about whether you support or oppose the death penalty. It is about whether we believe in due process.
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On March 5 the Senate voted 52-47 on a procedural matter against confirming Debo Adgebile to head the Justice Department's civil rights division. Every Republican present and seven Democrats took the position that Mr. Adgebile, a former lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Senior Counsel with the Senate Judiciary Committee, was not fit to lead the civil rights division because he had been one of several lawyers representing Mumia Abu Jamal.

Mumia Abu Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1982. His case has become both a symbol of and a lightning rod for strife around what ails our criminal justice system and the death penalty in particular.

NAACP LDF's representation of Jamal succeeded in overturning his death sentence because of serious constitutional violations in his case. Jamal is now serving a sentence of life without parole.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty does not take positions on judicial or administration nominations. Indeed, we take no position now.

However, the Senators' reasoning behind the vote on March 5 sets a dangerous precedent.

Much has been said about the coarsening of public discourse on important matters of public policy in recent years. But just as disturbing is an intentional or careless effort to unseat fundamental principles of democracy and liberty in pursuit of short-term political gain -- real or imagined.

Someone decided that it was acceptable to paint a lawyer with his client's brush -- as if our system of justice could survive if lawyers decided which clients to represent based on political and professional considerations rather than the strength of the legal claim or the risk of harm or loss that potential client might face.

The principle that won out during the Senate's deliberations on Adgebile's nomination has no boundaries. By the Senate's logic, ambitious lawyers should consider a client's notoriety, likeability, political connections or more importantly list of enemies when deciding whether to take traffic, juvenile and personal injury cases as well.

The growing concern over the Senate vote is not about whether you support or oppose the death penalty. It is about whether we believe in due process. Whether we believe that everyone is entitled to a competent lawyer -- and whether our system of justice can survive if lawyers' interests are divided between their own well-being and that of their clients.

Nowhere is this principle more important than in the context of criminal defendants on trial for their lives. One of the main failings of the capital punishment system today is the lack of competent counsel. There are still too few lawyers who are prepared to provide the quality of legal representation necessary to ensure that we do not make irremediable and tragic mistakes. Indeed the failure to receive adequate legal representation is a leading cause of wrongful convictions and death sentences.

Moreover, the flawed thinking that infected the Senate vote is already a troubling feature of the abysmal representation that many capital defendants receive.

In a system where clients literally pay with their lives for a lawyer's omissions, constitutional violations go unchallenged when lawyers fear the personal consequences of mounting too vigorous a defense. Evidence of innocence is not adequately pursued. Racially biased jury selection goes unchallenged. If a lawyer has to balance his or her livelihood and future political considerations against a client's interest, it's no contest.

A broad, bipartisan coalition of private pro bono, public interest, law professors, civil rights and civil liberties organizations has come together to respond to the action taken by the Senate. Many, like the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, do not usually engage in the nomination process. And we collectively hold a range of positions on capital punishment.

However, we are united in the view that Mr. Adgebile and indeed the American people deserve another vote. And one that is free of the unconscionable and inappropriate consideration that tainted the earlier process.

At the end of the day this is not, as some have suggested, about whether you like, dislike or for that matter even hate Mumia Abu Jamal. And this is certainly not about whether you have concern for those harmed by murder. Survivors of homicide hold a range of views on the death penalty. And all of those views must be treated with equal respect.

This is about whether we allow hard cases to make bad public policy.

In our democracy there are times when the people must lead. The Senate vote is a stark reminder of how easy it is to get lost. And so we will lead: It is time to tell the Senate: Protect our right to counsel and a fair defense. Take that vote again!

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