Cop-killer case sinks Obama Justice nominee

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Senators blocked President Obama’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division Wednesday in a bipartisan filibuster, with opponents saying his history defending a convicted cop-killer in the Supreme Court made him a poor choice.

The defeat of Debo P. Adegbile, who as an attorney for the NAACP backed appeals by former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, is a major blow to Mr. Obama. Democrats changed the rules last year to overcome filibusters with just 50 votes, but Majority Leader Harry Reid couldn’t even muster all of his own troops Wednesday.

Mr. Obama called the vote “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks,” and Mr. Reid lashed out at Republicans in thinly veiled accusations of racism.

“Maybe it’s time that America had a good discussion on civil rights,” the Nevada Democrat said.

He blamed Republicans for problems with confirmations of other black nominees.

On Wednesday, however, seven Democrats joined Republicans, agreeing with criticism from police organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, that Mr. Adegbile’s support for Abu-Jamal was too much to stomach.

Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. In the years since, his case has become a racial dividing line.

In 2006, Mr. Adegbile was part of an NAACP legal team that filed a Supreme Court brief in the Abu-Jamal case, and later was the group’s acting president when it began representing the convict. The NAACP argued that the trial was tainted and that the judge’s instructions to the jury were unclear.


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The case remains a hot issue in Pennsylvania more than 30 years after the killing, and that helped rally opposition against Mr. Adegbile.

“Today is a good day for Pennsylvania, for America, and for those who believe in justice,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican. His fellow Pennsylvanian, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Democrat, also voted to filibuster Mr. Adegbile.

“Today the Senate affirmed that our criminal justice system must never be abused to propagate a dishonest, radical agenda,” Mr. Toomey said.

Mr. Adegbile’s defenders said he was just providing Abu-Jamal with a good defense, and to deny him the civil rights post because of that would be a subversion of the justice system. They said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. defended a convicted killer in Florida during his time as a lawyer, yet that was never raised during his confirmation hearings to the federal courts.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said the key difference is that Chief Justice Roberts is white and Mr. Adegbile is black.

“It’s a shameful day for the United States Senate,” he said.

Mr. Reid listed a series of black nominees he said Republicans opposed unfairly, including Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Director Todd Jones, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

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