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President Barack Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile for assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice sparked a slew of criticism and justification, serving as the impetus for American Bar Association President James R. Silkenat to pen a letter defending the move.

At the heart of the controversy is Adegbile’s defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in the early 1980’s. His nomination to the Civil Rights Division piqued the interest of Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, among others, who said he was “incensed” and “confounded” by the nomination.

Originally sentenced to death, Abu-Jamal is now serving a life-sentence after a court ruled that the jury instructions in his murder case were confusing.

“Under Mr. Adegbile’s leadership, non-profit attorneys were recruited to defend convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. Jamal’s cold-blooded murder of Officer Faulkner is not in doubt. The efforts of those attorneys perverted the justice system and have made a mockery of the jury’s verdict and the court’s sentence,” he said in a letter earlier this month, shortly after Adegbile appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 5.

However, as criticism from a number of outlets surfaced, Silkenat sent an open letter to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Sen. Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the committee, to highlight rule 1.2(b) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which state: “[a] lawyer’s representation of a client does not constitute an endorsement of the client’s political, economic, social or moral views or activities.”

Silkenat also pointed out that one of the most important aspects of the American legal justice system is its right to counsel.

Further, he said Adegbile has been an admirable member of the legal system. “A fundamental tenet of our justice system and our Constitution is that anyone who faces loss of liberty has a right to legal counsel,” Silkenat wrote. “Mr. Adegbile’s work, like the work of ABA members who provide thousands of hours of pro bono legal services every year, is consistent with the finest tradition of this country’s legal profession and should be commended, not condemned.”

He added that there is an “ethical obligation” to provide “zealous representation” of those who face the “resources of the government,” even if they are accused of terrible crimes.

President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc, Sherrilyn Ifill, where Adegbile spent time as a defense attorney, also went to bat for Adegbile. She testified he is “eminently qualified,” for the position, noting his dedication to “defend the American promise of equality for all of its citizens.”

She cited Adegbile’s own testimony when defending his nomination, which stated: "We can and must do more to protect civil rights. I've seen the impact that enforcing civil rights can have on real peoples' lives.”

Fitzpatrick disagrees with the decision, though, and notes the National Fraternal Order of the Police also do not support Adegbile’s nomination. “This nomination is a direct affront to the thousands of law enforcement officials who serve in harm’s way to protect our families, and the communities who rely on their service and sacrifice,” he said.

Media reports indicated that Adegbile, a New York City native, was considered for a U.S. Court of Appeals position in the D.C. circuit in 2011 but ultimately was not nominated.

Inquiries to the ABA regarding how far along in their screening process he was, and if he was screened at all, were unsuccessful.

Dan Sabbatino is an award winning journalist whose accolades include a New York Press Association award for a series of articles he wrote dealing with a small upstate town’s battle over the implications of letting a “big-box” retailer locate within its borders. He has worked as a reporter and editor since 2007 primarily covering state and local politics for a number off publications.

Last modified on Thursday, 23 January 2014
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