Record Could Hinder Confirmation Of Civil Rights Nominee

Jan 8, 2014
Originally published on January 8, 2014 5:12 am
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In other Senate business, the Judiciary Committee today considers President Obama's nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. That nomination could not have come at a more challenging time. Last year, the Supreme Court overturned a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Now, government lawyers are trying to find another way to protect minorities at the ballot box. But NPR's Carrie Johnson reports the president's nominee could get bogged down in something else - battles over his record.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The son of immigrants from Ireland and Nigeria, Debo Adegbile grew up in the Bronx, where he endured stretches of homelessness. He also worked as a child actor on "Sesame Street" - as in this sketch where he introduced Grover to a letter of the alphabet.


FRANK OZ: (As Grover) That is an S?

DEBO ADEGBILE: (As character) Yes.

OZ: (As Grover) That - I got this thing that - this over here - over here is S?

ADEGBILE: (As character) Yes.

OZ: (As Grover) This is an old friend of mine. Hey - S, baby!

JOHNSON: Years later, Adegbile put himself through school and eventually got a job at the storied NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He's argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on two occasions, including a landmark case last year involving federal oversight of states with a history of discrimination.

ADEGBILE: This statute is, in part, about our march through history to keep promises that our Constitution says for too long were unmet. And this court and Congress have both taken these promises seriously. It is reasonable for Congress to make the decision that we need to stay the course so that we can turn the corner.

JOHNSON: The high court, divided 5 to 4, ruled against those arguments, and tossed out the Voting Rights Act system that made states get preapproval before changing their election laws. For conservatives like Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, the court was right and Adegbile was wrong. Von Spakovsky has followed Adegbile's work for years, and has doubts about his record.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: They need to nominate someone who believes in the race-neutral enforcement of our discrimination laws. And this individual doesn't believe in that, and that's one of the reasons why he really should not be confirmed.

JOHNSON: But former colleague Elise Boddie, now a law professor at Rutgers, couldn't disagree more.

ELISE BODDIE: Debo is a passionate advocate. He's also principled and believes strongly in the Constitution and strongly in the civil rights laws. And I am quite confident that he would enforce the laws as appropriate, and the country would be very lucky to have him.

JOHNSON: It's clear the administration wants to build up its civil rights legal muscle. In addition to promoting Adegbile, the Justice Department is bringing in another voting rights heavyweight, Stanford Law rofessor Pam Karlan. Karlan's been thinking about new strategies for a long time. Here she is last summer, at a conference sponsored by the American Constitution Society.


PAMELA KARLAN: And so we need to be vigilant about defending the gains we have, and about thinking in the long term about how we build strategies. We build the intellectual capital to make arguments so that we have the tools in place the next time we have a Supreme Court that has been induced to listen.

JOHNSON: Karlan and Adegbile are both part of that effort, taking on such steep challenges as the federal cases against voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina. But only Adegbile, as head of the civil rights division, will need Senate confirmation. In that struggle, he'll need to overcome the opposition not only of voter fraud activists, but also the Fraternal Order of Police.

The FOP wrote President Obama this week to express extreme disappointment in the nomination. They say Adegbile worked for the Legal Defense Fund when it handled an appeal from Mumia Abu-Jamal, an activist convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. Allies of the nominee say that work was confined to issues of jury selection and jury instructions, which they consider matters of fairness and not evidence of his being soft on crime. But Adegbile will likely face questions on his view of that case today.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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