Updated 5:23 p.m.
Civil rights groups are applauding President Barack Obama's nomination Thursday night of Debo Adegbile, one of their own, to head the Department of Justice civil rights division.
"Debo Adegbile is one of the pre-eminent civil rights litigators of his generation," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who led a telephone conference call today on the nomination. Henderson said he hopes and expects the Senate to confirm Adegbile for the position swiftly and with bipartisan support.
"We are absolutely thrilled that President Obama nominated one of our very own," said Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) where Adegbile worked for a decade.
Adegbile, 46, would be the fourth head of the civil rights division with LDF experience, following in the footsteps of Drew Days III, Deval Patrick and Bill Lann Lee. Sherrilyn Ifill, the current president and director counsel of the fund, said Adegbile is superbly qualified for the "critical work" of the division because of his "deep experience and understanding of civil rights litigation and civil rights law."
Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women's Law Center and Hilary Shelton of the NAACP, which is separate from the LDF, also praised Adegbile and said voting rights will be a major issue on his plate if confirmed, along with other issues including pay and educational equality for women and disability rights.
Before Ifill was named to the top position at the LDf, Adegbile was acting president and director-counsel. He was named to that position, once held by the late Thurgood Marshall, after the death of then-director John Payton.
For the last several months, Adegbile has been a senior counsel at the Senate Judiciary Committee, working on voting rights issues in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder -- a case in which Adegbile argued before the court. Before his 10-year stint at LDF, he was a litigator with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York.
Former Bush administration Solicitor General Paul Clement, now with the Bancroft firm, also weighed in on Adegbile: "I have litigated both with and against Debo and have heard him argue in the Supreme Court. I have always found him to be a formidable advocate of the highest intellect, skills and integrity."
The civil rights leaders also pointed to Adegbile's life story as one that will give him understanding of the needs of a diverse population. A son of immigrants from Nigeria and Ireland, Adegbile was raised by a single mother and experienced homelessness in New York City. He received his law degree in 1994 from the New York University School of Law.
In a 2012 interview with The National Law Journal, Adegbile discussed the then-looming Shelby County challenge to the Voting Rights Act, as well as Fisher v. University of Texas, a major affirmative action case. Both were shaping up as potential setbacks for civil rights groups -- and they turned out to be just that, though the affirmative action case is still being litigated.
Adegbile said at the time, "I think you have to take the long view when you're a civil rights lawyer and when you read the history of the country. The long view tells us that progress in the area of civil rights is episodic. It's characterized by ebbs and flows. It's not uni-directional and it requires vigilance ... We have seen time and again that important victories remain contested, and periodically you have these moments where they culminate in a new chapter of challenge, and so right now we have a perfect storm, where two things of central importance that speak to what opportunity looks like in America, hang in the balance."
Photograph by Diego Radzinschi