When I was starting my legal career in Washington DC, becoming a lawyer at the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice appealed to me for many reasons, including the fact that the head of the Division at the time was an Asian American lawyer. The hard-won appointment of Bill Lann Lee, who had a distinguished public interest career, to lead the Division held significance for me and other Asian American civil rights lawyers. It meant that we too could commit our lives to civil rights work both within and outside of government service, and that we could aspire to perhaps one day take on public leadership positions as Mr. Lee had.
Unfortunately, the efforts by the US Senate this week to block the confirmation of Debo Adegbile – who was poised to become the next head of the Civil Rights Division – sends an entirely different message to young lawyers, especially lawyers of color who choose to dedicate a part of our legal career to non-profit organizations serving minority communities.
Much has already been said and written about Mr. Adegbile. That he is highly qualified for the position he was appointed by President Obama to hold. That he has support from the leading civil rights organizations in our country to become the next Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. That Mr. Adegbile faced opposition from law enforcement for his participation in legal briefs filed in an appeal on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal (who was convicted of allegedly killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981) during his tenure at the NAACP LDF. That similar questions never arose during the confirmation process of John Roberts (who had also represented a prisoner during his legal tenure) to the US Supreme Court, as Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) persuasively points out in his remarks (watch here). That both Republican and Democratic Senators blocked Mr. Adegbile’s confirmation.
The Senate action this week prompts many conclusions about how Mr. Adegbile’s race and the political pressures that many Senators succumbed to prevented his confirmation from going forward as it should have. But it also presents a slippery slope for public interest lawyers. Will lawyers be more reluctant to join the ranks of public interest and advocacy organizations dedicated to protecting the rights of people of color and immigrants? Will South Asian, Muslim or Arab American lawyers, for example, who represent community members accused wrongly of terrorist activities, or who challenge surveillance activities of governmental agencies, be seen as “terrorist sympathizers” and “anti-American”?
Given the treatment that many civil rights lawyers have received when they aspire to high positions in government service, as detailed by NAACP LDF President Sherillyn Ifill, is it next to impossible to be both a civil rights defender and a civil rights enforcer? What about pro bono representation or being on the Board of Directors of a non-profit that takes positions that are seen as “political”? As Attorney General Holder remarked in response to the Senate vote this week: It is a very dangerous precedent to set for the legal profession when individual lawyers can have their otherwise sterling qualifications denigrated based solely on the clients that their organizations represent.”
Mr. Adegbile deserves another chance to have his nomination considered in the Senate (sign a petition from Color of Change here). Lawyers and bar associations should raise concerns about the messages being sent to our profession by the Senate’s action this week. We need to express our discontent with Senators who voted against Mr. Adegbile’s confirmation. Let’s send a different message to the civil rights defenders of today and tomorrow.
Disclosure: I worked for the Civil Rights Division at the US Department of Justice between 1998 and 2000.