Lawyer linked to Mumia case named to U.S. civil rights post

WASHINGTON - A lawyer whose nomination to a key Justice Department position sparked an acrimonious 2014 fight that hinged on the Mumia Abu-Jamal murder case has been appointed to a federal civil rights commission, infuriating Republicans.

President Obama on Thursday named Debo Adegbile to a six-year term on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan panel whose membership does not require Senate confirmation.

Adegbile, a civil rights lawyer, once oversaw an NAACP legal team that represented Abu-Jamal long after the prisoner's conviction for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner. Adegbile's role led the Senate in 2014 to reject his nomination to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. The 52-47 vote came amid fierce opposition from police and accusations by some Democrats of GOP fearmongering.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) led the floor fight against Adegbile's nomination, giving voice to objections from the Fraternal Order of Police and Maureen Faulkner, the officer's widow. On Friday, Toomey said Obama's decision to appoint Adegbile, despite the Senate vote, "is a slap in the face to every law enforcement officer in America."

He called on Obama to reverse course.

"A Democrat-led U.S. Senate evaluated the facts and agreed that Debo Adegbile is not fit to represent the American people as an enforcer of civil rights. This judgment included the votes of seven Democrats," Toomey said in a statement.

Critics faulted Adegbile for aiding Abu-Jamal and, they said, helping glorify a cop-killer, whose conviction has become a cause célèbre among some who believe he was unfairly convicted.

"This is just an eleventh-hour smack in the face of police officers by the administration," said John McGrody, vice president of Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, of which Faulkner was a member. He said Adegbile had no place in a civil rights post. "We're more concerned with the civil rights of Danny Faulkner, who was murdered by some thug who this guy represented."

Most Democrats said Adegbile was an accomplished lawyer who had twice argued before the Supreme Court, and was a victim of distortions that exaggerated his role in the case. They argued that he was punished for standing up for the principle that even hated criminals deserve a strong legal defense.

Adegbile, once a child actor on Sesame Street, was a teenager when Faulkner was killed. He got involved in the case while working at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, more than two decades after Abu-Jamal had been convicted and years after his death sentence had been thrown out. The legal group helped Abu-Jamal fight attempts to reinstate the death sentence.

Adegbile said he played a supervisory role and had little direct involvement. He signed three court briefs, including two to the Supreme Court. The first he signed was in 2008.

Toomey never met with Adegbile, but said the nominee was responsible for comments his subordinates made while attending rallies promoting Abu-Jamal's cause. Among the Democrats who voted against Adegbile were Sens. Robert Casey (D., Pa.) and Chris Coons (D., Del.).

Obama at the time called the vote "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks."

The Commission on Civil Rights has eight members, four appointed by the president and four by Congress. The panel was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to serve as an independent agency that studies alleged discrimination or voting rights abuses.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), in whose office Adegbile previously worked, praised Obama's appointment Thursday.

"Debo brings a strong, independent and knowledgeable voice to the commission. He has devoted much of his career to fighting for the civil rights of all Americans," Leahy said in a statement.

jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

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