Debo Adegbile, the president's pick to run the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, was praised today on Capitol Hill as "a remarkable example of the American Dream" during his confirmation hearing. But he also faced an array of questions from Republicans on his qualifications to lead a key post.
Adegbile, a former top lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee that civil rights enforcement has improved employment, access to education and increased access to the political process.
"We can do more to protect civil rights. We must do more to protect civil rights, and the [Civil Rights] division stands ready to protect civil rights of all Americans," Adegbile said. "I've seen the impact that enforcing civil rights can have on real people's lives."
Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced Adegbile, who has worked as senior counsel to the committee since July. "Debo has earned a reputation for his calm demeanor and for working to build consensus," Leahy said. "He is a careful lawyer and a good listener."
Leahy noted that Adegbile's nomination drew praise from appellate lawyer Paul Clement of Bancroft, a former solicitor general under President George W. Bush. "I have litigated both with and against Debo and have heard him argue in the Supreme Court," Clement told the committee. "I have always found him to be a formidable advocate of the highest intellect, skills and integrity."
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 75 other organizations wrote to support Adegbile. Other supporters included Seth Waxman, leader of the appellate practice at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, and New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Adegbile argued two significant cases on voting rights before the U.S. Supreme Court during his tenure at the NAACP, and he litigated for seven years at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Leahy said. Adegbile was born in the Bronx to an Irish mother and a father from Nigeria, and grew up in poverty and experienced periods of homelessness, Leahy said.
"Through hard work and grit, Debo graduated from Connecticut College and then earned his law degree from the New York University School of Law," Leahy said. "His journey from the Bronx to this nomination is a remarkable example of the American Dream. I know he has been shaped by these experiences."
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee's top Republican, said he has "some concerns with the way the Civil Rights Division has been run. And I also have some concerns with the nominee’s record."
The Fraternal Order of Police, Grassley noted, submitted a letter expressing the group's "extreme disappointment, displeasure and vehement opposition" to Adegbile’s nomination. The FOP criticized Adegbile's role advocating for Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of murdering a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981.
Adegbile testified, under questioning from Leahy, that he advocated for Abu-Jamal—and filed a Supreme Court amicus brief in the case—because of a legal issue related to how the jury had been instructed on a death penalty issue. His legal work in no way looked past the officer's death and "made no negative comment about the tragic loss of Officer [Daniel] Faulkner," Adebgile said.
Grassley also asked Adegbide about whether he would allow states to require voter ID laws. "It is not, as I understand it, the role of the Assistant Attorney General to determine in the first instance how states run their systems," Adegbile responded. What’s potentially subject to review, he said, is the manner in which a particular law was passed or the impact of the law.
The most challenging questions for Adegbile came from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who pressed Adegbile on Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.'s recent speech on immigration. Sessions asked if Adegbile agreed with his "boss-to-be" that a pathway to citizenship for immigrants "is a matter of civil and human rights."
"I'm just hearing this statement now and I take it that what may be at the source of the attorney general's comment is that, in certain circumstances, people who are vulnerable or not properly documented can be preyed on because of their status," Adegbile said. "And there are certain circumstances such people would need the protection of law enforcement and others to make sure their rights are not violated as human beings and persons under the constitution."
The end of the hearing did not mean the end of Republicans' questions about Adegbile's nomination. Grassley said he will ask written follow-up questions later.