03/17/2014 04:33 pm ET Updated May 16, 2014

Senate Rejects Lawyer Who Represented a Murderer, But Not Corporations Accused of Human Rights Abuses

On Wednesday, March 5, the Senate narrowly rejected the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. No one questioned Adigbele's qualifications; he is undoubtedly one of the nation's leading civil rights lawyers and scholars, having risen through the ranks to eventually lead the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, known as LDF.

Instead, the apparent reason for the rejection was that Adegbile, through LDF, had once represented convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and journalist who spent 30 years on death row for the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. For the offense of giving legal representation to a murderer -- and good representation, because a US Court of Appeals ultimately agreed that Abu-Jamal's death sentence was flawed -- 52 US senators voted against confirming Adegbile as assistant attorney general. Apparently the Senate does not tolerate lawyers who defend wrongdoers.

Less than a year ago, however, the Senate unanimously voted in favor of confirming Srikanth Srinivasan, a former corporate lawyer, to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. While Adegbile would have served, at most, for the three years remaining in President Obama's term, Srinivasan holds a lifetime appointment on the court that is often cited as the second most important in the nation.

The Senate seemed unconcerned by the fact that Srinivasan had built a practice around defending corporations accused of the worst crimes imaginable -- torture, war crimes, and genocide. One of Srinivasan's clients, Exxon Mobil, was accused of participating in a systematic campaign of human rights abuses against the people of Aceh, Indonesia; according to the D.C. Circuit, the court on which Srinivasan now sits, the victims alleged that "Exxon's security forces committed murder, torture, sexual assault, battery, and false imprisonment."

Srinivasan's other clients included mining company Rio Tinto, accused of abetting genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against the people of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea; and Ford Motor Company, accused of informing on anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and manufacturing specialized military vehicles for the brutal apartheid regime.

There is no point in comparing the relative horrors of murdering a police officer versus participating in human rights abuses -- all are examples of abhorrent conduct condemned by law and society. But there was a dramatic difference in the Senate's reception of the lawyers who defended those accused of these crimes.

At Srinivasan's confirmation hearing, the only senator who even mentioned his work defending human rights abusers was Delaware's Chris Coons, who noted that Srinivasan had attempted to establish that corporations could not be held accountable for violating international human rights law -- a position generally rejected by the courts. But Senator Coons gave Srinivasan a pass in the end, stating "in my view, I don't think these positions are any reason to oppose your nomination, because a lawyer's arguments on behalf of a client should not be arguments which are then confused with the beliefs of the lawyer."

Senator Coons was one of only seven Democrats to oppose Adegbile's confirmation. Apparently a corporate lawyer's arguments on behalf of his reprehensible corporate clients should not be held against him, but a civil rights lawyer's arguments on behalf of a criminal defendant who was sentenced to death in a flawed proceeding make him too radioactive to support.

Coons and his colleagues should be ashamed of this double standard. It is all the more appalling because while both lawyers represented clients accused of horrible crimes, Srinivisan defended enormous multinational corporations for huge fees while Adegbile represented individuals without charge.

We live in an era where corporations are deemed "persons" and given the right to influence elections. Perhaps it should not surprise us, then, that politicians give more scrutiny to a nominee who insisted that an individual murderer should be given a fair hearing, than to a nominee who argued that corporations should not be held responsible for committing deplorable crimes. But it should not be acceptable.