Senate Showdown Looms Over Obama's Civil Rights Nominee

Wednesday, 05 Feb 2014 12:04 PM

By John Gizzi

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The next major confirmation battle will be over Debo Adegbile, President Barack Obama's choice to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, according to sources in the U.S. Senate.

The pending showdown over Adegbile — onetime child star on TV's "Sesame Street" and former acting president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — is nothing short of high-stakes political poker.

To the left, the choice of Adegbile, 46, is an unmistakable signal from the president and Attorney General Eric Holder that the administration is going to fight states over imposing voter identification laws which they are convinced disenfranchises minorities.

Now senior counsel to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, Adegbile is considered a reliable leader in the fight over voter I.D. laws that are sure to emerge from state capitals in 2014. In addition, as head of the Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile defended the constitutionality of the 1965 Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court.

Holder, by "turning to Adegbile to be the top civil rights official," concluded the Washington Post, "signaled that he intended to fight back hard to safeguard what remains of the landmark Voting Rights Act."

Along with his legal credentials, the man who played with Big Bird and the Cookie Monster as a child actor has one of the moving personal stories Obama is so fond of in appointees. As the son of an absent Nigerian father and an Irish mother who raised him, Adegbile has a saga very much like that of the president himself.

But conservatives see the civil rights chief-designate quite differently.

"He is a radical far outside the mainstream who would abuse his authority and use the power of the Justice Department to push his divisive racial agenda," Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Newsmax.

In April 2005, Adegbile served on a panel at Yale Law School entitled "The Constitution in 2010." Sponsored by far-left billionaire George Soros' Open Society Institute, the panel's agenda was to lay out a blueprint for the evolution of a "progressive" U.S. Constitution within 15 years.

Three years later, Adegbile served on an advisory board that helped another Soros organ, the American Constitution Society, cobble together a paper urging Obama to establish a new agency to close the gap "between the human rights ideals that the United States professes and its actual domestic practice." The paper also condemned U.S.-sponsored "torture" and "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment ... in the name of counterterrorism."

The same paper also called on the president "to nominate judges who will [recognize] that ratified treaties and customary international law are the law of the land."

As head of the Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile filed a "friend of the court" brief alleging that former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal's conviction for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia policeman was tainted by racial discrimination. The relentless courtroom efforts of the fund resulted in an appeal in 2012 that reduced Abu-Jamal's death sentence to life imprisonment without parole.

The Fraternal Order of Police, a union and America's largest police organization, wrote to Obama expressing "extreme disappointment, displeasure, and vehement opposition" to the choice of the man who worked so hard on behalf of convicted policeman-killer Abu-Jamal.

Likely in the back of the minds of Adegbile's supporters is the strong possibility that, once confirmed, he will be a future Cabinet member, federal judge, or even Supreme Court justice.

Since the office of assistant attorney general for civil rights was created in 1957, the profile of its holders has risen and many have gone onto bigger things.

Harold Tyler, who held the job from 1960 to 1961, became a federal judge and deputy attorney general. Jerris Leonard, Richard Nixon's highly regarded assistant attorney general for civil rights, became the first head of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.

Bill Clinton's civil rights head, Deval Patrick, is now governor of Massachusetts, and Thomas Perez, Obama's first appointee to the position, is secretary of labor.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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