Stand Up for Debo Adegbile and Principled Legal Advocacy

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), along with other bar associations and legal groups, expressed profound concern over the rejection of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. In a letter to the 52 Senators who voted against the nomination, the coalition denounced the March 5 vote as detrimental to the legal system that should be protecting our fundamental rights. Read the press release on the letter here

Since the letter was sent on March 13, advocacy groups and other civil rights organizations have signed on. If your organization would like to be a sign on and be added to the list below, please email communications@nlg.org.

Dear Senators:

The National Lawyers Guild and the undersigned organizations write to express our great disappointment with your vote last week against Debo Adegbile for the position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice. Lawyers should not have to refrain from taking cases that law enforcement officials deem controversial in order to assume public office. Such a proposition insults the very best traditions of the legal profession and our system of government, namely representing “unpopular” clients vigorously and conscientiously.

While some of the undersigned organizations refrain from taking a position on nominees, we all agree that Senate confirmations should not turn on a nominee’s representation of someone in a criminal matter.

There is a long and noble history of lawyers going against popular opinion in this country. John Adams successfully defended British soldiers accused of killing colonists. His son effectively represented the Amistad case. James Horton, the presiding judge in the Scottsboro case, is remembered today as heroic but at the time lost his job as a judge and couldn’t maintain his law practice due to his affiliation with the case.  

ABA Model Rule 1.2 states that legal representation should not be denied to those “whose cause is controversial or the subject of popular disapproval.” ABA Model Rule 1.2(b) itself assures that representation of a client “does not constitute an endorsement of the client's political, economic, social or moral view or activities.” Although the Model Rules do not force lawyers to take on unpopular clients, ABA Model Rule 6.2(c) states that lawyers should not turn down court appointments unless “the client or the cause is so repugnant to the lawyer as to be likely to impair the client-lawyer relationship.”  

As President Obama noted, “The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice." Rather than discussing the merits of Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications for the position, which both Republicans and Democrats have agreed are impeccable, the debate on the Senate Floor on March 5 was shaped by a smear campaign engineered by the influential Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). Ironically, the Senate and the FOP are sending the message that lawyers who fulfill their mission of upholding the U.S. Constitution through representing clients—in this case former death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal—should be disqualified from serving in high levels of the government.

The campaign to discredit Mr. Adegbile is reminiscent of criticism leveled at attorneys representing or advocating on behalf of Guantánamo detainees. In 2010 they were vilified and labeled “unpatriotic” in several media campaigns. Responding to an inquiry from Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the Department of Justice identified nine of its attorneys as involved in defense work. As a result, these lawyers, along with several other non-government attorneys representing detainees, found their ethics and loyalties under attack for pro-bono work they conducted as a matter of conscience and professional responsibility.

Bar associations and legal organizations defended the Guantánamo lawyers in 2010, speaking out publicly against criticisms of their service on behalf of the detainees. We now object to attempts to vilify attorneys such as Debo Adegbile, and the honorable work of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as antithetical to the fundamental rights enshrined in our constitutional system. The Legal Defense Fund’s willingness to represent high-profile, and to some, unpopular, defendants demonstrates a respect for the rule of law. Rather than punish principled legal advocacy, as an elected official who took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, you should commend it as integral to our democracy.

Sincerely, 

National Lawyers Guild

American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Los Angeles County

California Employment Law Association

Center for Constitutional Rights

Communities United Against Police Brutality

Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan

Defending Dissent

Human Rights Defense Center

LatinoJustice PRLDEF

Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association

Michigan Coalition for Human Rights

National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

National Conference of Women's Bar Associations

National Legal Aid & Defender Association

National Native American Bar Association

National Police Accountability Project

Partnership for Civil Justice Fund

People’s Law Office

Project for Nuclear Awareness

Puerto Rican Bar Association

Society of American Law Teachers

South Asian Bar Association of New York

South Asian Bar Association of North America

Wanye County Criminal Defense Bar Association