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Marge Baker Headshot

Debo Adegbile and the Toxic Influence of Big Money

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Earlier this week, the Senate refused to end the filibuster of the nomination of Debo Adegbile to become the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division

Adegbile was unquestionably well suited for the job. The child of immigrants, Adegbile was raised by a single mother and survived homelessness before going on to build a career as a highly regarded attorney who has dedicated his career to protecting Americans' civil rights, including arguing two voting rights cases before the Supreme Court.

But opponents seized on one particular aspect of his career--one that should have been lauded--in order to smear him as soft on crime and a foe of law enforcement.

As an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (the same organization once led by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall) Debo Adegbile was part of the team that successfully challenged the death sentence imposed on Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted of killing a police officer in 1981. Neither the LDF nor Adegbile ever argued for Abu-Jamal's innocence; instead they simply argued that every defendant is entitled to a sentencing hearing free of constitutional error. That position was vindicated by an appellate court which included two Reagan-appointed judges.

Providing legal assistance to unpopular, even reviled, figures is not an uncommon resume item for figures who go on to high public office. John Adams, while advocating for American independence, successfully defended the British soldiers accused of killing colonists in the Boston Massacre. Much more recently, Supreme Court nominee John Roberts faced no criticism at his confirmation hearing for his pro bono representation of a convicted mass murderer who had killed eight people.

Yet every single senate Republican, along with seven Democrats, blocked Adegbile's nomination because of his work on that case.

How did we arrive at a place where a highly respected attorney with a powerful personal history of accomplishment can be rejected for upholding the constitutional rights of an unpopular figure?

The answer is twofold.

First is the ugly willingness of the Right and the GOP to engage in outright character assassination and play to racial fears and stereotypes. Senators accused Adegbile of lionizing a convicted cop killer. Fox News called him a "cop killer coddler." Right-wing blogger and frequent Fox News guest J. Christian Adams complained of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's "radical racial agenda."

Less obvious, but no less important, is the out-sized role that unrestricted big money is playing in magnifying the power of right-wing demagoguery. The power of the post-Citizens United megaphone to magnify any attack, particularly one suffused with racially charged demagoguery, can have an enormous chilling effect on basic common sense and decency. With now unlimited funds that our elected officials know will be spent by powerful moneyed interests, those contemplating support for this superbly qualified public servant understood that they would face not just the threat of a Willie Horton ad; they were facing the threat of a thousand such ads.

In this case, the result of the willingness of Republicans to embrace a strategy far beyond the pale combined with the announced willingness of right-wing billionaires to finance sleazy attacks this election season, had to have played a role in preventing a qualified nominee from being confirmed to a critically important job. And unfortunately this is only the tip of the iceberg. Expect to see far more of this toxic mix of mudslinging and money wreaking havoc with every part of our system of government. Until the Tea Party fever breaks within the GOP and Americans move decisively to curb the influence of limitless money in elections, this week's vote is just a small taste of things to come.