Guilt by Association

It is a sad state of affairs when Debo Adegbile cannot be confirmed to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The Senate last week rejected his appointment – after President Obama nominated him.

What is sad is the reason why he was not approved, despite his stellar credentials. He was not approved because, when he was head of the NAACP legal defense education fund (the same post Thurgood Marshall once held), the NAACP took up a controversial cause. The NAACP provided post-conviction representation to Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted by a Philadelphia jury of murdering a police officer. The NAACP, and a lot of outside observers, thought Abu-Jamal was wrongly convicted and they were fighting to try and save his life. (Ultimately his conviction stood and he is currently serving a sentence of life without parole). Thus, it was Adegbile’s mere association with Abu-Jamal, as head of the entity that provided legal counsel to Abu-Jamal, that some Senators (almost all Republican) found objectionable.

This undermines the very essence of our legal system. It punishes defense lawyers because of the acts committed (or allegedly committed) by their clients. Yet, criminal defendants have a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. Without defense attorneys, our system would not work.

Not only did this happen to Adegbile, but it happens all the time, throughout all of our court systems. It is rare that criminal defense attorneys are appointed as judges. They are rarely elected to public office. They are often passed up for awards. Rather, these promotions, perks and accolades disproportionately favor prosecutors. And when this happens, our criminal justice system becomes a little less balanced.

To drag someone like Adegbile through the mud because of someone he barely represented is cynical and dangerous. I wonder if the same thing would have happened to him if he had previously represented a large corporation that dumped toxic chemicals into the environment. I doubt it would have.