The confirmation hearing for Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has many of the standard elements and witnesses on Adegbile’s career as a lawyer and an advocate. One witness however is not like the other: Maureen Faulkner, the widow of a Philadelphia police officer gunned down in 1981. Now, Adegbile is not accused of gunning down Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner or even being an accomplice before or after the act. No, the witness is being called to suggest that Abegbile should not be confirmed because he represented the man convicted of the murder. Faulkner is being joined by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and the Fraternal Order of Police in saying that such representation is relevant in determining if he should be confirmed. It is move that strikes at the heart of the notion of the right to counsel and due process. Many law students become prosecutors because they fear that representing criminal defendants or controversial clients will bar or hinder their professional advancement while the presidents and members of Congress continue to favor prosecutors for judicial appointments (making the federal bench a sometime hostile place for criminal defense counsel).
Adegbile has been denounced as “radical,” “dangerous” and “outside the mainstream.” However, the main proof of these allegations is the simple fact that he agreed to serve as counsel for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal was a member of the Black Panther Party. He later became a radio journalist and president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. On December 9, 1981, Officer Faulkner was shot dead while conducting a traffic stop on a car driven by Abu-Jamal’s brother, William Cook. Faulkner shot Abu-Jamal in the encounter. The case became a national focus not only because of the death of a police officer but the later errors claimed in association with Abu-Jamal, who initially represented himself with disastrous results.
I can understand Maureen Faulkner’s anger at the loss of her husband. That anger is likely magnified by the international movement behind Abu-Jamal. She is quoted as saying that there is digest when she and others are forced to “witness Adgebile, a man proud to have chosen to aid the murderer of their friend, singled out for honors and high office by the government of the United States. It is an abomination to now reward Mr. Adgebile as if he had done something wonderful.” The problem is that critics seem to view the representation of a killer as a celebration or endorsement of the crime. If Adegbile has extreme views, we should hear them. That is a relevant concern and has been raised with regard to positions taken as legal counsel to NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. However, the attention on his confirmation seems largely to focus on the fact that he dared to represent a hated individual. Criminal defense, particularly for indigent clients, is often a thankless job despite the legacy of such work found in the likes of John Adams. However, this hearing creates a clear chilling message for young lawyers and law students that they should turn down such cases if they do not want to bar any hope for professional advancement.
I am equally disturbed by the comment of Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police that “This nomination can be interpreted in only one way: it is a thumb in the eye of our nation’s law enforcement officers.” The impression was that the insult was nominating a lawyer who represented an accused cop killer. It that is the intention, it is a careless and thoughtless position. I have represented law enforcement personnel and I have sued police officers. I even represented officers of the Fraternal Order of Police. I will remind Canterbury that many denounce lawyers who represent officer accused of abuse or wrongful shootings.
I have the luxury of a job with lifetime tenure at a wonderful law school. I consider that position to come with the added responsibility to represent people who might not be able to secure counsel because of unpopularity or alleged crime. Other lawyers do not have such protection or support. The message being sent from this hearing is this lawyer should be judged by what his client did — a notion that is anathema to anyone who values the rule of law.
I know little about Adebdile and I have no objection of witnesses discussing his prior conduct or legal views. However, that is not the focus of the coverage thus far in this controversy. The message seems to be that no one will stop a lawyer from representing an unpopular client but you do so at your own risk. There are relevant issues and irrelevant issue. The fact that he was a child actor on Sesame Street, for example, does not mean that he was responsible for the content of the show. Being counsel to a criminal defendant and even believing in his innocence does not make him sympathetic to cop killers or facilitating murder.
I am very discomforted by the thrust of coverage on the nomination and the use of the murder case to undermine such a nominee.