Several of President Barack Obama's Democrats in the U.S. Senate joined Republicans on Wednesday to block his nominee to a top Justice Department job after complaints that the lawyer, Debo Adegbile, had once helped represent a convicted "cop killer."
Adegbile, a former director at the Legal Defense Fund of the civil rights group NAACP, had been nominated to head the Justice Department's civil rights division.
Seven Democrats joined Republicans in the procedural vote blocking the nomination. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid eventually joined them in a maneuver to preserve his right to bring up the nomination again.
The final vote was 47-52, with 51 votes needed for the nomination to proceed.
It was the first time that an Obama pick has been blocked in the Senate since Democrats changed the rules last year to strip Republicans of their power to stop a nominee on their own.
The Fraternal Order of Police had helped rally opposition against Adegbile, calling Obama's selection of him "a thumb in the eye of law enforcement."
Scores of civil rights groups backed Adegbile, calling him "a tireless advocate," and "a skilled litigator" who was well qualified for the job.
Backers said Adegbile should not be punished for his limited representation several years ago of Mumia Abdu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer.
Obama criticized the Senate vote, calling it a "travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant."
He says Adegbile played by the rules as a lawyer but that Washington's political system has used those same rules against him. The president said Adegbile's nomination was defeated solely because of his legal representation of a defendant, and that that is contrary to the American system of justice.
One of the Democrats who voted to block the nomination was Sen. John Walsh of Montana, who was only appointed last month to replace new ambassador to China Max Baucus. The other six were Sens. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
In a statement, Coons said he accepted that Adegbile is qualified but outside pressure would make it impossible for him to do his job. "I was troubled by the idea of voting for an assistant attorney general for civil rights who would face such visceral opposition from law enforcement on his first day on the job.
"The vote I cast today was one of the most difficult I have taken since joining the Senate, but I believe it to be right for the people I represent."
Abu-Jamal's case stirred debate inside and outside America about the fairness of the U.S. justice system and the application of the death penalty.
Courts upheld Abu-Jamal's conviction. Before Adegbile got involved, the sentence was reduced to life in prison because of what judges called improper instructions to the jury.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell opposed the nominee, saying, "Everyone deserves a fair trial and a zealous legal defense. And lawyers aren't personally responsible for the actions of their clients.
"But lawyers are responsible for their own actions. In this case, the nominee inserted his office in an effort to turn reality on its head, impugn honorable and selfless law enforcement officers, and glorify an unrepentant cop-killer," McConnell said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, defended the nominee, saying: "Debo's role in the Abu-Jamal case was limited to two Supreme Court briefs and one Third (U.S.) Circuit (Court of Appeals) brief."
"Attempts to attribute more to Debo, including out-of-court statements by other (NAACP) LDF attorneys, are unfounded," Leahy said.
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