One of the jobs of our U.S. Senate is to approve the President’s nominations of people to certain high-level government jobs. Many nominations do not get much media attention. However, a stir was created last week when the Senate rejected Debo Adegbile, a prominent civil rights lawyer, for a top job with the Justice Department.

The controversy arose from the reason for Adegbile’s failed confirmation. He was not rejected because he accepted bribes, threw tantrums in court, or failed to show up for work. Rather, he was turned down for a post in the Department’s civil rights division because he did his job too well.

There was no dispute that Adegbile was a fine lawyer and a zealous advocate. There was no dispute about his character or integrity. But he was undone because he worked on a NAACP defense team which represented an African American man convicted of killing a police officer. Another strike against him was that he committed the sin of arguing Voting Rights Act cases before the U.S. Supreme Court (voting, of course, is one of our most fundamental Constitutional rights).

Apparently, representing unpopular people is now a deal breaker for nominees before the U.S. Senate. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell accused Adegbile of glorifying “an unrepentant cop killer.” This vitriol was directed at Agegbile because he had the temerity to raise serious Constitutional questions – successfully as it turns out – about the fairness of the accused man’s trial.

It is important to understand what Adegbile didnot do. He did not kill a police officer. He did not advocate killing police officers. Instead, as part of a NAACP defense team, Adegbile argued that the accused killer’s trial was unfair because it was tainted with racial discrimination. Later, Adegbile argued the judge gave the jury the wrong instructions about the law they should apply in deciding the case. These were serious arguments about the fundamental fairness of the criminal trial.

At any rate, after Adegbile’s team prevailed on these arguments, the convicted killer did not go free. His sentence was simply reduced from death to life in prison.

Nevertheless, Adegbile’s nomination degenerated into an episode of political theater. Purportedly conservative senators jumped on the “cop killer’s coddler” bandwagon. Some Democratic senators, perhaps worried that a vote in favor of Adegbile would show up in political attack ads during reelection season, jumped on the bandwagon too. The nomination was narrowly defeated, 52-47.

Until recently, senators involved in the confirmation process understood the types of efforts undertaken by Adegbile constituted advocacy, not glorification. Vigorous representation, even for unpopular people and causes, was considered a sign of respect for the rule of law. Both liberal and conservative leaders considered this a core principle of our legal system.

This principle has a long and distinguished history. For example, before the American Revolution, a young lawyer in Boston came to the defense of British soldiers accused of committing the Boston Massacre. The young lawyer was an American patriot himself, and admitted the decision to defend the soldiers was heart wrenching. But he never regretted it, calling it “one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life.” Someone must have agreed with him, because John Adams went on to be the second President of the United States and a revered Founding Father.

More recently, a lawyer in private practice worked as a volunteer to defend a man who murdered eight people. That lawyer, John Roberts, is now the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court – the highest judge on the highest court in the land.

Simply put, lawyers are not their clients. They are not accomplices to the things their clients do. Just as an emergency room doctor does not advocate gang violence by trying to save a gang member involved in a knife fight, a lawyer does not advocate criminal behavior by defending one accused of a crime. At a personal level, lawyers often do not agree with or endorse the actions of those they represent. But they understand that seeking justice for clients or defending their rights is a solemn duty, and a noble calling, under our laws and Constitution.

Fair treatment under the law is not supposed to depend on whether a person behaved the right way or has the “right” set of beliefs. All clients, regardless of their race, ethnicity, political views, or religious faith, are supposed to have the same rights under the law. Lawyers who attempt to protect those rights should not be punished by being disqualified from government service.

True conservatives will not be rejoicing about Adegbile’s rejection. If his case sets a new standard, then nominees they would consider desirable will be vulnerable too. John Roberts would not be on the Supreme Court. Gerry Spence, arguably one of the finest trial lawyers of the last century, would also be disqualified from government service. He would be off limits because he successfully defended Randy Weaver against a charge of murdering a U.S. Marshal during the infamous Ruby Ridge standoff.

Unfortunately, a majority of our U.S. senators don’t seem interested in the fact that representing someone is different than aiding and abetting in their crimes. Those senators seem much more concerned about reelection and racial politics. Adegbile’s defeat was not a case of profiles in courage; rather, it was a case of profiles in cowardice. John Adams must be rolling over in his grave.

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