The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved President Obama’s nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, who had drawn scorn from some Republicans and police unions. 

Debo Adegbile had received criticism for his involvement in the legal defense of Mumia Abu Jamal, who was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1982. 

Adegbile was approved on a 10-8 party-line vote. 


Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDem senators demand GOP judicial group discloses donors Senate Democrats skipping Pence's border trip Democrats want investigation into cost, legality of Trump's July Fourth event MORE (D-Vt.) said the nominee did not deserve the “disparagement” aimed at him by some media outlets. Adegbile currently serves on the committee's majority staff. 

Much of the criticism of Adegbile stemmed from the incorrect assumption that he made the decision for the NAACP legal defense fund, of which he was a part, to represent Abu Jamal, Leahy said. 

Regardless, Leahy pointed out that even death row inmates need lawyers. 

“The principle that all sides deserve competent and effective counsel is at the bedrock of our constitutional system,” he said in a statement. 

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyAdvocates frustrated over pace of drug price reform Trump drug pricing setbacks put pressure on Congress Hillicon Valley: Trump rails against 'terrible bias' at White House social media summit | Twitter hit by hour-long outage | Google admits workers listen to smart device recordings MORE (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the committee, said the defense of Abu Jamal became more than a legal defense. It turned into a cause against the death penalty, Grassley asserted, in which advocates claimed racial discrimination, slandered police officers and alleged police abuse.

“In short, this case is about much more than hyper-technical legal challenges to the imposition of the death penalty,” he said. “It has become a cause.”

Grassley said the NAACP legal defense fund brought motion after motion on behalf of Abu Jamal. 

“So this isn’t exactly a case of Mr. Adegbile intervening to vindicate the rights of an indigent defendant who’d been denied a fair hearing,” Grassley said. “Nor is this a case of the lawyer stepping in to defend an unpopular client who couldn’t otherwise find a lawyer. This is not John Adams defending the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.”

Grassley, however, said he was not basing his vote solely on Adegbile’s involvement in the case and cited concern with the Civil Rights Division in general and the nominee’s position on voter-ID laws among a number of other views.  

The NAACP legal defense fund represented Abu Jamal during his resentencing after being sentenced to death in 1982. Adegbile held various leadership roles in the fund during the time. Abu Jamal's appeals of the sentencing kept his case in the courts for much of the next three decades.

In 2011, Abu Jamal avoided the death penalty after the courts ordered that he should be resentenced after flaws during his original 1982 trial. Prosecutors then announced they would no longer seek the death penalty against him.