Corbett, Ridge lobby against lawyer nominated for Justice Department post
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge on Thursday urged the U.S. Senate to reject President Obama's nominee for a key Justice Department position because the lawyer helped overturn the death penalty for a notorious convicted cop killer.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on a straight party-line vote approved Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division despite Adegbile's representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal as a member of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. The vote was 10-8. The nomination of Adegbile goes to the full Senate.
Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther, was convicted in 1982 of murdering Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner. Adegbile was a lead attorney with the defense fund who joined the case later and helped get the death penalty tossed in 2011.
Abu-Jamal, 58, is serving a life sentence at State Correctional Institution Mahoney in Schuylkill County, where he works as a janitor cleaning showers, sweeping floors and emptying trash, prison officials say. He's one of 351 lifers there, among 2,500 adult male prisoners.
“Mr. Adegbile pushed the boundaries of appropriate advocacy in supporting the cause of a convicted murderer,” Corbett said. “This nomination is an insult to the family and memory of Officer Daniel Faulkner.”
Ridge, who signed Abu-Jamal's death warrant in 1995, said Faulkner, 25, “made the ultimate sacrifice protecting the city he loved.” Ridge said Abu-Jamal had a well-funded legal team when Adegbile “chose to get involved.”
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County, expressed “grave concerns” about Adegbile in a letter to colleagues. Toomey said lawyers supervised by Adegbile “promoted the myth that Abu-Jamal was a heroic, political prisoner who was framed because of his race.”
Committee chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., said it was not Adegbile's decision to have the civil rights organization defend Abu-Jamal, and that everyone is entitled to legal representation.
Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics, said a lawyer's job is to represent his client to the fullest extent and the lawyer shouldn't be blamed for the client's behavior, no matter how egregious. “Everyone is entitled to counsel. (Adegbile) didn't commit the crime,” Coleman said.
But, said Toomey: “This was not a case of every defendant deserving a lawyer. Abu-Jamal already had multiple, high-priced lawyers volunteering their time and filing dozens of petitions and appeals over two and a half decades.” The NAACP joined the case 27 years after Faulkner's death, Toomey said.
Efforts to establish Abu-Jamal's innocence became a cause célèbre among liberals and for human rights organizations around the world. To this day the case remains racially divisive in Philadelphia, where it's common to see people “wearing Danny Faulkner T-shirts,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester County. Faulkner was white.
From a national perspective, Republicans know they might not be able to block Obama's nominees in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but the goal may be to make them appear as “radical” as possible to continue to make the case that Obama is an extremist, Leckrone said.
“The other way to look at it is, Republicans believe the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under Eric Holder has become increasingly politicized, particularly in voter ID cases,” Leckrone said.
Other arguments surfaced. Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said Adegbile is so close to the NAACP he'd have to recuse himself in many cases. He questioned Adegbile's qualifications.
People for the American Way, a liberal group, told senators that Obama nominated “one of this generation's pre-eminent civil rights litigators.”
Sen. Bob Casey, a Scranton Democrat, planned to meet with Adegbile and with the Fraternal Order of Police, which opposes Adegbile, before deciding whether to support the nomination, an aide said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed.