Willie Horton Politics: Senate Votes Against Civil Rights

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This post originally appeared at The Nation.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator John Barrasso speak to reporters on Capitol Hill after bipartisan Senate opposition blocked swift confirmation for Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department's civil rights division. Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Wednesday, the US Senate voted 47-52 not to confirm Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Every Republican senator and seven Democrats voted against Adegbile’s nomination.

Adegbile, the former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was superbly qualified for the position. He was endorsed by the American Bar Association and high-profile lawyers on both sides of the aisle and presciently defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court last year. He would’ve made an excellent head of the Civil Rights Division.

But Adegbile was the victim of a vicious right-wing smear campaign, attacking him because LDF defended Mumia Abu Jamal’s right to a fair trial. All across the right-wing media echo chamber, on Fox News and conservative blogs, the words Adegbile and “cop-killer” were plastered in the headlines. The Fraternal Order of Police came out against his nomination, even though a court agreed with LDF that Abu Jamal had not been granted a fair trial — a basic right in American society regardless of whether he did or did not commit the crime.

In disqualifying Adegbile, senators are establishing a very dangerous precedent that attorneys are responsible for all of the actions of their clients.

In disqualifying Adegbile, senators are establishing a very dangerous precedent that attorneys are responsible for all of the actions of their clients. “LDF’s advocacy on behalf of Mr. Abu-Jamal does not disqualify Mr. Adegbile from leading the Civil Rights Division,” prominent members of the Supreme Court bar wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. “To conclude otherwise would send the wrong message to any lawyer who is affiliated, or might be asked to become involved, with a difficult, unpopular case for the purpose of enforcing and preserving important constitutional principles.”

It’s understandable why every Republican senator lined up against Adegbile’s nomination —the modern GOP has voted against civil rights time and time again. But the opposition of Democrats Casey, Coons, Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin, Pryor and Walsh is more shameful (Harry Reid voted no for procedural reasons, to keep the nomination alive). The idea that voting against the nomination of the head of the DOJ Civil Rights Division would swing a close race is laughable. Casey and Coons deserve particular scorn, since they represent safe blue states and both profess to be supporters of the causes Adegbile supports, like voting rights.

The vote this week shows that, 26 years after George Bush ran the infamous Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis, race-based gutter politics is still not a thing of the past. As the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Adegbile deserves better.”

Ari Berman is a senior reporter for Mother Jones, where he covers voting rights. Previously he was
a senior contributing writer for The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. His second book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, was published in August 2015 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Follow him on Twitter: @AriBerman.

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