Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, attributes much of his success as an attorney to a nine-year stint as a child actor on “Sesame Street” in the 1970s.
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But as he faces Senate confirmation hearings this month, Adegbile, 46, is drawing a different kind of attention from conservative activists. They are less interested in stories about the time he explained the letter “S” to Grover the Muppet and more curious about his record as an unapologetically liberal voting-rights lawyer, his representation of a convicted killer of a police officer and his leadership tenure at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“When he ran the unit at the Legal Defense Fund, they took positions far outside of the mainstream of the law, far outside existing jurisprudence as it relates to race, and really advanced a fringe agenda,” said J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department civil rights lawyer who has written a book attacking the Justice Department under Obama. “If he attempts to do the same at the Justice Department, it will be a catastrophe.”
Adegbile’s nomination, along with the recent news that prominent Stanford University law professor Pamela S. Karlan will be appointed his voting-rights deputy, has been seen by many as a sign that the Obama administration is moving to reinvigorate the Justice Department’s voting section, particularly after a Supreme Court ruling last year voided important parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Adegbile defended the act’s constitutionality on behalf of the Legal Defense Fund during the Supreme Court argument. But the justices ruled that a federal requirement forcing some states to seek Justice Department “pre-clearance” before changing their election laws violated the states’ sovereignty.
Turning to Adegbile to be the top civil rights official, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. signaled that he intended to fight back hard to safeguard what remains of the landmark Voting Rights Act and to prevent Southern states from imposing new restrictions or identification requirements at polling stations that Holder argues could effectively disenfranchise minorities.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Adegbile has worked for several months as senior counsel to Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), have not yet taken a stand on him. But given the Senate battle over nominations and criticism by Republicans of the Civil Rights Division under Adegbile’s predecessor, fireworks are expected.
“He is just so incredibly suited for this position,” said Leslie M. Proll, director of the Washington office of the Legal Defense Fund, which was founded in 1940 by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Among civil rights lawyers, “Debo stands alone in terms of his depth and the breadth of issues (he has worked on) across the board.”
Ryan Haygood, a defense fund colleague from the New York office, said Adegbile was raised by a single mother, an Irish immigrant who struggled with poverty and even occasional homelessness when he was a child.
Despite her circumstances and the absence of her son’s Nigerian father, Adegbile’s mother fought to get her son into top private schools in Manhattan, where he usually received scholarships because of his good grades, Haygood said.
When he was 4 or 5, a friend noticed an ad seeking children to audition for “Sesame Street.” Adegbile landed the job and played the part of Debo, a child of the “Sesame Street” neighborhood, until high school. Haygood said his friend had “fond memories of Grover and Cookie Monster” and of meeting Ray Charles during a guest appearance by the singer.
After high school, Adegbile attended Connecticut College and the New York University School of Law.
“His life’s trajectory went from humble circumstances in New York City to standing at the podium at the Supreme Court,” said Nina Perales, director of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It was a special moment to watch him argue and argue well.”
But Adegbile’s career has suffered some notable disappointments. In 2012, he was passed over for the top job at the Legal Defense Fund after serving as its acting president for eight months. He was asked to stay on as special counsel.
In 2011, Obama asked the American Bar Association to evaluate Adegbile for possible appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, normally a precursor to nomination. But the White House later withdrew his name.
Conservative bloggers say the bar association found Adegbile unqualified. But Florida lawyer Ben Hill, who was chairman of the bar association evaluation committee, said in an interview that Adegbile’s name was withdrawn before he was rated by the group.
An administration official said Adegbile’s name was withdrawn after Caitlin Halligan, a lawyer in the Manhattan district attorney’s office with a moderate record, failed to win Senate approval for the D.C. Circuit, casting doubt on Adegbile’s chances.
The White House would not comment on the record or allow Adegbile to be interviewed for this article, as is common practice for nominees.
Adegbile’s representation of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a radical Philadelphia journalist who was convicted of killing a police officer in 1981, was another potential liability in judicial confirmation hearings. The issue is already being raised by conservatives in advance of his confirmation hearing for the Justice Department post.
Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to death with what state and federal judges said was overwhelming evidence, including three eyewitnesses to the shooting and two more who said he bragged of the killing when taken to a hospital afterward. But the charismatic Abu-Jamal became an international cause celebre in leftist circles.
Adegbile and other fund lawyers filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court in 2009 asserting that the conviction was invalid because of racial discrimination in jury selection. They directly represented Abu-Jamal when prosecutors asked the Supreme Court to reinstate his death sentence, which had been thrown out because of problems with jury instructions. He is serving life in prison without parole.
Adegbile’s supporters say he is well-suited to the civil rights post, not only because of his professional experience in combating discrimination but also, Haygood said, “because of his own life story, empowering people to pursue their dreams and not to be constrained by race, gender or disability.”