The battle over President Obama's nominee for the top civil-rights job at the Justice Department is shifting to Sen. Robert P. Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat, a friend of the president who faces fierce home-state opposition to the nominee for taking on the cause of a notorious cop-killer.
Mr. Casey is expected to meet this week with members of the Fraternal Order of Police, a group vehemently opposed to the nomination of Debo Adegbile to become the next assistant attorney general for civil rights. Mr. Adegbile was chief of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 2009 when that group worked to prevent a death sentence for Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of murdering Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, where Mr. Adegbile has been serving as senior counsel, approved his nomination last week on a straight party-line vote of 10-8. With Republicans no longer able to filibuster nominees, they'd need to pick up six Democrats to stop the nomination on the floor, and Mr. Casey is one of their most likely targets.
Casey spokesman John Rizzo said Thursday the senator hasn't made up his mind whether to support the nomination.
"The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty haunts his family and the people of Philadelphia to this day," Mr. Rizzo said in a statement. "Senator Casey believes that every person nominated by the president of the United States for a high level position such as assistant attorney general for civil rights should be given fair and thoughtful consideration as each senator discharges the responsibility of 'advise and consent.' Therefore, Senator Casey will meet both with members of the Fraternal Order of Police as well as Mr. Adegbile himself before making a final decision."
Mr. Casey met last week with the nominee, whom Mr. Obama is counting on to lead the administration's fight to defend and expand voting rights. The senator is caught between the expectations of the president, his friend and sometime basketball teammate; and influential people in his home state who oppose Mr. Adegbile's nomination, including the Democratic district attorney of Philadelphia, the city's police union and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican.
Another person hoping Mr. Casey will vote "no" is his colleague, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, who took to the Senate floor Wednesday with a poster-sized photograph of Officer Faulkner to rally opposition against the nomination.
Mr. Toomey said Mr. Adegbile and his staff at the Legal Defense Fund "spread misinformation" about Abu-Jamal's trial and "blocked justice for Danny Faulkner and Danny Faulkner's family."
"These LDF lawyers promoted the myth that Mumia Abu-Jamal was somehow a heroic political prisoner, that he was framed," Mr. Toomey said. "In fact he was a coward and an unrepentant murderer. I do not believe that Mr. Adegbile's nomination is consistent with the goal of promoting truth and justice in America."
Democrats are equally fervent in support of Mr. Adegbile, a former child star on "Sesame Street," saying he is a superb lawyer and highly qualified for the post.
"Debo is careful, he listens, and he understands the importance of building consensus," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. "Anyone who knows him understands that he is a man of the utmost integrity."
Mr. Adegbile told the committee that his work on Abu-Jamal's behalf "was about the legal process."
"It's important, I think, to understand that in no way does that legal representation, zealously as an advocate, cast any aspersion or look past the grievous loss of Sergeant Faulkner," he testified.
Abu-Jamal, born Wesley Cook, is a former member of the Black Panthers. From his prison cell, his rise as an international cause celebre among liberals sometimes obscures the facts of Officer Faulkner's murder, which are not in dispute.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 9, 1981, the officer pulled over a car in Center City Philadelphia. The driver, who was Abu-Jamal's brother, resisted arrest. Abu-Jamal, who happened to be nearby on the street, approached Officer Faulkner and shot him in the back.
The officer fired a shot and wounded Abu-Jamal, but not seriously. Abu-Jamal then stood over the fallen officer and shot him several more times, including once in the face, killing him. The policeman was 25.
Police quickly apprehended Abu-Jamal at the scene. A jury convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.
Appeals dragged on for decades. In 2001, a federal judge upheld the murder conviction but vacated the death penalty, ruling that the jury had been improperly instructed.
After further appeals in which the NAACP Legal Defense Fund assisted, and a ruling by the Supreme Court upholding Abu-Jamal's conviction, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced in 2011 that prosecutors would no longer seek the death penalty. Abu-Jamal was removed from death row in January 2012. He has exhausted all appeals.
Mr. Toomey said all criminal defendants deserve legal representation, but said Mr. Adegbile's work on behalf of Abu-Jamal veered into political advocacy.
"I do not believe that Mr. Adegbile's nomination is consistent with justice for the family of Officer Danny Faulkner or for anyone else who cares about the law enforcement community across this country," he said.
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