Why Debo Adegbile Should Be America’s Top Civil-Rights Attorney

Opinion: In supporting Adegbile, nominated to be a key Justice Department lawyer, Wade Henderson says Adegbile can “ensure that all Americans can work and live free from discrimination.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 08: Senior counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Debo Adegbile testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee January 8, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Adegbile has been nominated by President Barack Obama to become the next Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Wade Henderson
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Wade Henderson
Feb. 5, 2014, 8:29 a.m.

Qual­i­fic­a­tions should mat­ter when con­firm­ing nom­in­ees to high-level gov­ern­ment va­can­cies. Debo Ad­e­g­bile, the nom­in­ee to be our na­tion’s top civil-rights at­tor­ney at the Justice De­part­ment, has a lengthy and re­mark­able ca­reer that should be re­viewed in its en­tirety when the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee con­siders his nom­in­a­tion Thursday.

Wade Hende­r­son is the pres­id­ent and CEO of the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civil and Hu­man Rights, a co­ali­tion of more than 200 na­tion­al civil- and hu­man-rights or­gan­iz­a­tions. (Alex Wong/Getty Im­ages)Ad­e­g­bile is one of the pree­m­in­ent civil-rights at­tor­neys of his gen­er­a­tion. He twice de­fen­ded the Vot­ing Rights Act be­fore the Su­preme Court and has worked in cor­por­ate law, the Sen­ate, and as the lead­er of the stor­ied NAACP Leg­al De­fense and Edu­ca­tion­al Fund.

He has rep­res­en­ted battered wo­men, po­lice of­ficers, fire­fight­ers, voters, fam­il­ies strug­gling with fore­clos­ure, and vic­tims of Hur­ricane Kat­rina. He has been en­dorsed by a bi­par­tis­an group of high-level of­fi­cials, civil-rights groups rep­res­ent­ing the full di­versity of this na­tion, state at­tor­neys gen­er­al, po­lice of­ficers, and many oth­ers.

A re­view of just a few of Ad­e­g­bile’s cli­ents demon­strates his deep un­der­stand­ing of how civil-rights laws can and should be used to en­sure that all Amer­ic­ans can work and live free from dis­crim­in­a­tion.

When tox­ins poisoned drink­ing wa­ter in Dick­son County, Tenn., the Holts, an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an fam­ily, were told for years that their wa­ter was safe while their white neigh­bors were warned and giv­en ac­cess to an al­tern­at­ive source. All of the Holt fam­ily even­tu­ally came down with life-threat­en­ing or fatal health prob­lems like can­cer. After learn­ing that they were left to drink con­tam­in­ated wa­ter, it was Ad­e­g­bile who rep­res­en­ted them, sought justice on their be­half, and helped to en­sure that states and com­pan­ies could no longer sub­ject fam­il­ies to this type of agony without con­sequences.

When young Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, Latino, and Asi­an-Amer­ic­an job ap­plic­ants were be­ing sys­tem­at­ic­ally denied em­ploy­ment at a pop­u­lar chain of cloth­ing stores be­cause their looks wer­en’t “clas­sic” enough, Debo Ad­e­g­bile rep­res­en­ted them, too. As part of its set­tle­ment with these ap­plic­ants, the com­pany agreed to change its hir­ing policies to en­sure that this type of dis­crim­in­a­tion wouldn’t re­peat it­self.

When strug­gling homeown­ers in In­di­ana were faced with fore­clos­ure, polit­ic­al op­por­tun­ists saw it as a chance to deny them their right to voteus­ing their pending fore­clos­ures as a jus­ti­fic­a­tion for throw­ing out their voter re­gis­tra­tion. Debo Ad­e­g­bile rep­res­en­ted them and helped to en­sure that people in In­di­ana could vote in their com­munit­ies re­gard­less of their fin­an­cial cir­cum­stances.

Cases like theseabout vot­ing rights, em­ploy­ment dis­crim­in­a­tion, and en­vir­on­ment­al safety, in ad­di­tion to those in­volving fair hous­ing, the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men Act, and the Amer­ic­ans with Dis­ab­il­it­ies Actmake up much of the port­fo­lio for which the head of the Civil Rights Di­vi­sion at the Justice De­part­ment is re­spons­ible.

But there have been at­tempts to shout down Ad­e­g­bile’s qual­i­fic­a­tions and to dis­tort his re­cord on death-pen­alty cases. These dis­tor­tions are a mis­guided at­tempt to tie Ad­e­g­bile to the ac­tions of one of his cli­ents, a con­victed mur­der­er of a po­lice of­ficer. The Amer­ic­an Bar As­so­ci­ation has praised his rep­res­ent­a­tion, say­ing that it is “con­sist­ent with the finest tra­di­tion of this coun­try’s leg­al pro­fes­sion and should be com­men­ded, not con­demned.”

The truth is that the head of the Civil Rights Di­vi­sion is far too im­port­ant a po­s­i­tion to al­low sub­stance to be hi­jacked by un­hinged rhet­or­ic. A man of these qual­i­fic­a­tions is per­fectly suited to head the Civil Rights Di­vi­sion and, after a sober re­view of his tal­ents and qual­i­fic­a­tions, should be con­firmed.

Debo Ad­e­g­bile has shown time and again that he can rep­res­ent cli­ents who most need pro­tec­tion. And once con­firmed he will rep­res­ent every per­son un­der the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion with that same zeal and in­teg­rity.

The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion. Email us.

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