The Senate on Wednesday rejected President Obama's controversial pick to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, as seven Democrats bucked their party's leadership and joined Republicans in opposing the nomination of Debo Adegbile.
A procedural vote to advance Adegbile's nomination fell two votes short, despite a contentious move in November by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to change the chamber's rules to make it easier to overcome Republican filibusters and confirm White House nominations.
The nomination sparked controversy because of Adegbile's involvement in the legal representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black nationalist who was convicted in 1982 of murdering Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
The president called the Senate's failure to confirm Adegbile a "travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant."
"Mr. Adegbile’s qualifications are impeccable," Obama said. "As a lawyer, Mr. Adegbile has played by the rules. And now, Washington politics have used the rules against him."
Despite Democrats controlling 55 seats and only a simple majority needed in the 100-seat chamber for confirmation, party leaders were unable to hold back the defections in their ranks that doomed the nomination. Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and John Walsh of Montana voted against Adegbile. All Republicans who voted opposed the nomination.
The finally tally was 47-52 after Reid switched his yea vote to nay in a parliamentary maneuver that allows him to bring up the nomination later. Sen John Cornyn, R-Texas, was the only no-show.
Vice President Joe Biden, serving in his role as president of the Senate, presided over the chamber, ready to cast the deciding vote for Adegbile in case of a tie.
The nomination stirred up a more-than-30-year-long debate over Abu-Jamal, who opponents say is a cold-blooded cop killer. His worldwide supporters, however, say he was wrongfully convicted, with some claiming he was framed by the police because is was black.
As part of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile helped to permanently commute Abu-Jamal's death sentence to life in prison, a move opponents say makes him unfit to serve in the Justice Department.
"The nominee has a long history of advocating legal positions far outside the mainstream," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It's a record that demonstrates he is simply too deeply committed to these liberal causes to be an effective and fair leader of the [Justice Department's] Civil Rights Division."
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., said Adegbile's legal record "creates serious doubts" about his qualifications for the position.
"Today is a good day for Pennsylvania, for America, and for those who believe in justice," Toomey said. "Today the Senate affirmed that our criminal justice system must never be abused to propagate a dishonest, radical agenda."
But Adegbile has been widely praised by the legal community and liberal groups, who consider him one of the nation's preeminent civil rights lawyers.
Supporters of Adegbile, currently senior counsel for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., added he was upholding a centuries-old American tradition of affording all suspected criminals legal representation, no matter the crime.
"Mr. Adegbile's representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal does not mean that he lacks respect for the rule of law, and it certainly should not disqualify him for this important civil rights job," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "In fact, his willingness to represent an unpopular defendant in an emotionally charged case demonstrates his appreciation for the rule of law, as well as his respect for the criminal justice system."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., compared Adegbile to Founding Father John Adams, who defended British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre on the eve of the Revolutionary War.
"Everyone that's prosecuted deserves the best of representation," Leahy said.
The senator added that in his almost four decades in the Senate, "I don't know if I've ever heard a time in those 40 years when a person was so misrepresented."
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Adegbile was subjected to a "smear campaign" and has called on Reid to bring his nomination again to the Senate for a vote.
"The NAACP Legal Defense Fund's involvement in Mumia Abu-Jamal's case reflects its institutional commitment to ensuring that the criminal justice system is administered fairly and in compliance with the U.S. Constitution for all Americans, no matter how controversial," Ifill said.
But senators were under pressure from law enforcement groups and Faulkner's widow to oppose the nomination.
"Mr. Adegbile was a willing and enthusiastic accomplice in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s bid to cheat us of the justice we waited so many years for," Maureen Faulkner said in a February letter to senators. "Mr. Adegbile freely chose to throw the weight of his organization behind Mumia Abu-Jamal, and he has publically [sic] stated that he would get Mumia Abu-Jamal off death row."
And some conservatives worried that Adegbile, if confirmed, would impose a national mandate that would make it tougher for employers to reject job applicants who are convicted felons.
Aside from the Abu-Jamal case, Grassley said he had other significant concerns about Adegbile. Grassley said he is soft on gun rights, was evasive when asked about the legality of voter ID laws, and had not been forthcoming when asked if he would commit to implementing recommendations made by the Justice Department's Inspector General regarding hiring in the Civil Rights Division.
The Senate Judiciary Committee in February approved Adegbile’s nomination along a straight party-line vote, 10-8.
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, enforces federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin.
This article was originally posted at 1:35 p.m. and has been updated.