On Wednesday — the 244th anniversary of the Boston Massacre, following which founding father John Adams successfully defended the British soldiers accused of killing colonists — the Senate voted to reject the nomination of Debo Adegbile to lead the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division because he once filed an appeal on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted in 1982 of killing a Philadelphia police officer. President Obama released an unusually harsh statement on the vote, calling it "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant" whose qualifications "are impeccable."
The defense of Abu-Jamal, as The Washington Post noted on Tuesday, was central to a spirited conservative opposition to Adegbile's nomination. As the conservative site Townhall noted, six major law enforcement organizations also opposed the nomination specifically because of Adegbile's work with Abu-Jamal. The Post describes that work as "limited," involving appeals filed as part of Adegbile's time working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Expected to be close, the vote was decided by Democratic senators. With Vice President Biden on-hand to act as a potential tie-breaker, the tally was 47 to 52, with Sens. Casey, Pryor, Heitkamp, Manchin, Donnolly, Walsh, and Coons opposing Adegbile's nomination. (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also voted against the nomination so that he could preserve the ability to reintroduce the nomination in the future.) Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware was considered by many observers to be the most surprising defection for the party, given that most of the other Democrats represent more conservative states. But in a statement obtained by the Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly, Coons noted that the crime for which Abu-Jamal was convicted happened just across the river from his state, and that "law enforcement officers and families throughout our region" apparently felt that any support for Abu-Jamal was disrespectful. (Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania, echoed that sentiment.)
The position for which Adegbile was nominated, head of the civil rights division, is often one that inspires heated opposition. Charged with enforcing federal civil rights laws, the person in that position is often at the nexus of controversial political issues. Among the reasons Thomas Perez, Obama's pick to run the Department of Labor, was so controversial last year was that he held this position at the Department of Justice.
It's hard not to see some irony in rejecting Adegbile's nomination to the Department of Justice because of his past work defending criminals, particularly on this day. During the 1770 Boston Massacre, British troops fired on an angry crowd of Bostonians — one of the events that served as a catalyst for the American Revolution. John Adams, who would eventually be one of the first presidents of the new United States, rose to defend the soldiers under the belief that every accused criminal deserves as robust a legal defense as possible. That tenet was enshrined in the Constitution.