The Senate on Wednesday surprisingly rejected the nomination of Debo Adegbile, a former Supreme Court advocate for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), one of those who voted no, immediately admitted that the vote wasn’t about the nominee’s ability to do the job but his limited association with the over-hyped case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an inmate on death row for convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer.

The Capitol. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
The Capitol. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

“As a lawyer, I understand the importance of having legal advocates willing to fight for even the most despicable clients, and I embrace the proposition that an attorney is not responsible for the actions of their client,” Coons said. He continued:

The decades-long public campaign by others, however, to elevate a heinous, cold-blooded killer to the status of a political prisoner and folk hero has caused tremendous pain to the widow of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner and shown great disrespect for law enforcement officers and families throughout our region. These factors have led me to cast a vote today that is more about listening to and respecting their concerns than about the innate qualifications of this nominee.

But Adegbile’s innate qualifications, not the merits of the Mumia case, were the issue. In a single vote and follow-up statement, Coons managed not only to betray the ethical principles on which the justice system depends and acknowledge his hypocrisy, but also repudiate another crucial principle — that the president should be able to staff his administration with appointees of his choosing, unless they’re sorely unqualified.

The Senate’s habit of turning confirmation votes into proxy wars over all sorts of issues, particularly divisive social questions, hurts the country. It discourages talented people from doing substantive work before they’re nominated, it punishes those who resisted the incentive to play it safe, it deters many others from seeking to serve the public at all, and it makes staffing the government outrageously time-consuming. You can be sympathetic to Faulker’s family and dismissive of the movement to valorize his killer without hijacking our system of checks and balances to make that point. It just takes more courage than Coons and his like-minded colleagues managed to scrape together on Wednesday.

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.