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Why Did the Senate Block Debo Adegbile?

Much of the rancor around why they opposed Debo Adegbile for heading the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has been about Mumia Abu-Jamal. But it seems from their line of questioning that there’s also an agenda to undermine the Civil Rights Divisions’ duties to enforce voting rights and protect Americans against discrimination. This probably explains why Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama sound really pissed with the Senate right now.

“At a time when significant voting rights cases and other consequential matters are pending, it is more critical than ever to have a confirmed leader for the Civil Rights Division,” said Holder in a statement decrying the Senate vote. “He deserved to have his nomination considered wholly on the merits.”  

President Obama called it a “travesty” noting that Adegbile’s “unwavering dedication to protecting every American’s civil and Constitutional rights under the law—including voting rights —could not be more important right now.”

While the Abu-Jamal association clearly rankled many of the Republican and Democrat senators, their problems with voting rights protections were just as apparent. The January 8 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing exhibited plenty of that aggression—both passive and blatant—towards Adegbile’s voting rights record.  

In that hearing, Sen. Charles Grassley asked Adegbile point blank if he would block voter ID laws as head of the Civil Rights Division if confirmed. Adegbile, who has argued against certain state voter ID laws that were proven discriminatory as an attorney for NAACP LDF, replied that it wasn’t the Justice Department’s role to “determine in the first instance how states run their voting systems.” That answer wasn’t good enough.

In follow-up questions submitted to the committee for the record on Adegbile’s nomination, Grassley took the voter ID inquisition even further. He asked a litany of questions about whether Adegbile thought voter ID laws were equivalent to poll taxes, whether he’d challenge them under the Voting Rights Act and whether he believed in voter fraud.

Grassley even asked if Adegbile would show states how to enact a voter ID law in ways that they “could be certain that the Civil Rights Division would not bring a challenge.”

The questions assumed that the Civil Rights Division doesn’t already provide guidance to states  on how to avoid discrimination in their election laws. They also assumed that the division has blocked every voter ID law that’s crossed their path. The Justice Department, in fact, has cleared voter ID laws in Virginia and New Hampshire in recent years, and has used the Voting Rights Act to help countless jurisdictions implement similar election laws in ways that avoid challenges by making them non-discriminatory.

But Republicans on this committee, including Grassley, projected suspicion mostly on the Voting Rights Act and grilled Adegbile hard about whether he would honor the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision that stripped the Act of some of its powers. Adegbile defended the Voting Rights Act as an Legal Defense Fund lawyer in the Shelby case, but there’s been doubt among Republicans that he would comply with the ruling.

From Grassley’s submitted questions on the nomination:

Grassley: In Shelby County v. Holder, you argued on behalf of the respondent-intervenors that the Court should uphold Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act. You argued that Section 5 “remains essential to safeguard our democracy from racial discrimination;” that Section 2 litigation is an “inadequate response to the persistent and adaptive problem of racial discrimination in voting in certain parts of our country;” and that “racial discrimination in voting remains concentrated in the jurisdictions that have historically been covered by Section 5.” The Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b). Please answer each subpart individually.


Do you still agree with the arguments you made in this case?


Adegbile: The congressional record in support of the 2006 reauthorization of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act supports the above quotes; in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the Section 4(b) geographic coverage provision of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional as a basis for Section 5 preclearance. I will follow the Supreme Court’s holding in Shelby County.


Grassley: Do you accept the Supreme Court’s decision as final?


Adegbile: Yes.


Grassley: In the brief, you argued that “racial discrimination in voting poses a unique threat to our democracy.” What steps will you take, if confirmed, to stem this “unique threat?”


Adegbile: If confirmed, I will enforce the laws within the Civil Rights Division’s authority that protect voters against discrimination.


Grassley: In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, how will you use Section 2 litigation to protect rights of voters?


Adegbile: If confirmed, I will evaluate the facts, apply the law, and file Section 2 cases where appropriate.

Adegbile was asked the same—whether he’d honor Shelby and whether he accepted the ruling on Section 5 preclearance nullification—by all of the Republican senators who submitted questions: Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL). Sessions, in fact, asked Adegbile if he would be willing to “eliminate” the attorneys who worked on Section 5 cases from the Department if confirmed.

The entire process—from the January 8 committee hearing to yesterday’s vote in the Senate—has been clouded in inquiries about whether Adegbile would be willing to forget the nation’s sordid history around racial discrimination and run the Civil Rights Division in a color-blind manner. The whole point of the division is to enforce the civil rights laws of the land, but the senators’ suspicions suggest that they fear Adegbile might enforce them too fairly. Their questions have made them sound like they want Adegbile to sacrifice fighting racism in return for their confirmation for a post that is primarily about fighting racism.

“It’s hypocritical for Senators to claim to support civil rights enforcement and then turn their backs on our communities by voting against the consideration of this nominee on his merits,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

It’s important to note that despite all the hypocrisy and suspicion, Adegbile hasn’t shied away from professing an understanding of the Civil Rights Division’s role in combatting racism. In Grassley’s questions about whether Adegbile still agreed with statements made in briefs filed when he was an LDF lawyer about how racism pollutes the criminal justice system, Adegbile responded:

Unfortunately, race continues to have an impact on sentencing outcomes and the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system. Recent data detailing disparities in student discipline for example, released by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education on the topic of nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline, is instructive guidance.
These data show that youth of color—particularly African-American and Latino youth—are more often referred to law enforcement and disciplined at higher rates than their white counterparts. Moreover, these disparities are not explained by the frequency or seriousness of misbehavior by youth of color

Attorney General Eric Holder and the former Civil Rights Division head Tom Perez moved boldly and at times fearlessly on issues of racism, particularly when it came to preserving voting rights protections. It sounds like t are afraid that this kind of thing will continue.