The Right’s Unethical, Ignorant, Un-American And Dangerous Attack On Debo Adegbile

"How can you trust him to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department? He's a Lawyer!"

“How can you trust him to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department? He’s a Lawyer!”

I don’t know much about Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s choice to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division. I know that he could hardly be more of a disaster than the current Attorney General, Eric Holder, and that the odds are that he would have to be much better. It may be that Adegbile is superbly qualified; it may be that he isn’t qualified at all. But I do know, with 100% certainty, that his representation of a convicted cop killer to seek to overturn his conviction is completely, absolutely irrelevant to his qualifications or character, and that for conservatives, Republicans and GOP Senators in Adegbile’s confirmation hearings to argue otherwise is both irresponsible and contemptible.

I first learned of this controversy from conservative radio host Mark Levin, who can really be an ugly hypocrite at times, and this was one of those times. Levin is a distinguished lawyer and an ethical one*; I refuse to believe that he does not comprehend ABA Model Rule 1.2 (b) or its importance to his profession. It reads:

“A lawyer’s representation of a client, including representation by appointment, does not constitute an endorsement of the client’s political, economic, social or moral views or activities.”

This principle is essential to allow, not merely the justice system but the entire rule of laws in a democracy, to function properly, and any lawyer who cynically, unethically, and dishonestly undermines it is playing with fire. “It is a move,writes  Prof. Jonathan Turley, “that strikes at the heart of the notion of the right to counsel and due process”—-but it is much more than that. If every citizen does not have full access to the laws of the land, the ability to use them to his own benefit and protection whatever his purpose, as long as it is legal, then this is not a government by the people and for the people, but rather a government of law-manipulating specialists and experts who bend ordinary citizens to their will through the use of complex, convoluted, jargon-riddled statutes and regulations that their victims can’t possibly understand.

Every citizen must be allowed to have the loyal, trustworthy services of not only a lawyer but the best lawyer affordable and the lawyer of his or her choice, or our democracy is a sham. For this to be possible, we must not project that citizen’s motives and character on the lawyers who are the only bridge between the laws and citizens’ ability to be something more than victims of them.

In short, it says nothing of Debo Adegbile’s fitness as a public servant that he represented a convicted cop killer, a cannibal, Son of Sam, Spiro Agnew or Willie Sutton. It simply says that he is a lawyer, and one who embraces the traditional ethics and aspirations of the profession. Abraham Lincoln won fame getting an acquittal for a friend whom Lincoln knew was guilty of murder, but the prosecution didn’t have the evidence to prove it. Good. Does this mean he was pro-murder? Clarence Darrow used his extraordinary persuasive power to stop over a hundred men accused of murder—most of them guilty, some of them certifiable monsters— from being executed. Good. They were citizens, they had as much a right to use the laws that offered them protection as the government had to use other laws to threaten their lives and freedom. Was Darrow a fan of killers? No, he was fan of making sure ordinary people weren’t crushed by laws and systems they could never understand, use or survive without the help of a lawyer…in his case, the greatest lawyer of them all.

J. Christian Adams, the former Justice Department attorney who was a casualty of the New Black Panthers fiasco (where Obama’s race-biased Justice Department decided not to prosecute two intimidating members of the group for conduct at a polling place that would have been an automatic offense if they had been white), is also attacking Adegbile for his choice of clients. Disgraceful. I might send him a DVD of “The Conspirator” so he can reacquaint himself with the best ideals of his profession. Adams, to his shame, bases his argument that Adegbile ought to be condemned for the acts of his criminal client on this intellectually dishonest mind-offal:

“Mumia [the convicted killer, Adegbile’s client] had been convicted and represented by counsel at his trial decades earlier. The NAACP was involved in a federal habeus corpus challenge to his conviction thirty years later.  This was a civil case, not a criminal one. At this stage of court proceedings, there is no constitutional right to counsel. This is particularly so when a murderer loses before the federal trial court, and appeals an adverse decision.”

Deceit. True, the 6th Amendment only guarantees legal representation in criminal trials. But the legal profession in the U.S. and, as Adams, like Levin, must know, has always maintained as a core ethical principle that no American should lack for legal representation for any legitimate purpose, and every bar association holds to that ideal….as they must. The principle Adams and Levin are advocating, in contrast, is a sinister one, where lawyers rather than judges or juries pass premature judgment on the claims and needs of citizens, and withhold competent access to legal remedies according the their personal assessments regarding the validity of a citizen’s motives. This, of course, gives unacceptable power to lawyers, making it their choice who gets the protections of our justice system and who does not.

The danger of this contention cannot be understated. Ironically, it has typically been the dictatorial Left that has argued for such a distortion of the legal system. In 2011, noted law professor Deborah Rohde argued that no lawyer or law firm should agree to represent the House of Representatives in the legal defense of a  passed (by duly-elected Congressional representatives) and signed (by a Democratic President) law of the land at the time, the Defense of Marriage Act, because she (and all the good, virtuous, right people who just know what laws should be upheld and which should not) had decided that to do so was unethical. She wrote in the National Law Journal:

“Should lawyers in civil cases decline a client whose objectives or terms of representation they find objectionable? In his letter of resignation, Clement stated that his “thoughts about the merits of DOMA are…irrelevant.” Many lawyers share that view. They hold Clarence Darrow’s belief that their role is to defend, “not judge” their client. But that simple, and financially expedient, assertion, begs the question of what the lawyer’s role should be in civil contexts. For criminal matters, society has a strong moral justification in ensuring that every client has effective representation. When life, liberty and reputation are at stake, it is critical to provide adversarial checks on state power. Vigorous advocacy for all defendants gives law enforcement officials incentives to do their job effectively within constitutional limits. Protecting those who are guilty is essential to preserve the rule of law and to protect those who are not.

“In civil cases, the moral calculus is different. Except in rare circumstances, civil claimants have no right to counsel. The notion that lawyers should check their conscience at the door in these cases has implicated the profession in some of the worst public health and financial crises in the nation’s history. We do not, and should not, applaud the lawyers who enabled clients’ resistance to enforcement of civil rights guarantees or to health warnings about cigarettes. Lawyers, no less than other individuals, have a moral responsibility to consider the consequences of their professional actions.”

Rhode was proposing no less than a political, moral tyranny of lawyers, and hypocritically so, since she was one of those who correctly excoriated Pentagon official Charles “Cully” Stimson, the Bush official who had to resign after he criticized lawyers who represent terrorism suspects in Guantanamo Bay as the equivalent of traitors. So we shouldn’t judge lawyers by their criminal clients, but absolutely should by their civil clients, is that right, Professor? So you agree with Levin and Adams that a technically civil action to show that a criminal conviction was unjust can only be handled by a lawyer who approves of the underlying crime, right?

Ridiculous. Disgraceful. Un-American. And horrible legal ethics.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) can be slightly forgiven, I suppose, for his lack of comprehension of this issue: he’s not a lawyer. Still, his decision to let the wife of the slain policeman in the case testify in Adegbile’s hearings is a cheap and dangerous stunt, and even a non-lawyer (Grassley is not an uneducated man) should be able to understand why this is unfair to the nominee, sets a terrible precedent, and, like so much else that happens in Washington, makes the public less civically literate. Professor Turley again:

“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.”

Yes, do remind him of that, Professor, and let’s remind all the conservatives using this irresponsible tactic where it leads. It leads directly to citizens being slaves to their own nations’ laws, because they can’t possibly access them on their own, with lawyers deciding who is worthy of being able to take advantage of our “inalienable” rights, and who has the “privilege” of legal representation. It leads directly to Prof. Rhode’s utopia where causes she doesn’t approve of and corporations she thinks are bad can’t find competent legal assistance when they are over-charged for taxes or persecuted by over-zealous regulators or legislated out of existence, because “bad” people and companies and organizations don’t deserve lawyers, and the lawyers decide what is “bad.”


*Except when he is consciously appealing to bigots and racists, as he was yesterday when he intentionally mispronounced Debo Adegbile’s name, saying, “Whatever his name is; I can’t keep track of all the consonants.” Funny! How to play the “Otherness” card, Mark. He’s got a foreign-sounding name, so he’s not really an American; we get it. Imagine a Jewish-American engaging in this abhorrent tactic. How much lower can you sink?


Pointer: Mark Levin

Sources: Fox News, Res Ipsa Loquitur, WSJ, Pajama Media

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

61 thoughts on “The Right’s Unethical, Ignorant, Un-American And Dangerous Attack On Debo Adegbile

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiment here, but that makes our disagreement a few days ago all the more puzzling. Today you say:

    “Clarence Darrow used his extraordinary persuasive power to stop over a hundred men accused of murder—most of them guilty, some of them certifiable monsters— from being executed. Good. They were citizens, they had as much a right to use the laws that offered them protection as the government had to use other laws to threaten their lives and freedom.”

    Unless, of course, the citizen in question is determined (to the government’s satisfaction, with no outside accountability) to be working with a group that is determined (again, no accountability) to be sufficently anti-USA. In that case, summary extrajudicial execution via drone.

  2. Besides Lincoln and Darrow, I was expecting you to mention John Adams, as he perfectly exemplifies that lawyerly virtue (okay bring on the oxymoron jokes). But, at least someone you quoted mentioned him.

  3. I’ve said it publicly and often…

    If you are pissed off that this guy defended a guy you don’t like, you are a villian and a monster and need to be savagely beaten. It is the guilty and reviled that need the BEST representation, and to suggest that they shouldn’t get a good lawyer is to say that you are willing to be accused of a crime and never have access to a lawyer.

    I hate the people attacking this guy, and would enjoy setting them on fire.

  4. I would think their confusion arises from 2 sources, neither excusing the attack:

    1) This being an appeal – perhaps they don’t realize that even convicted guys can still appeal and have a right to representation, but think lawyers who do jump to defend a convicted guy during appeal is the same as claiming “he shouldn’t have been convicted of this conduct”. Which is of course a fallacious conclusion.

    2) that some lawyers do choose not to represent certain clients. Isn’t this a rate occurance in certain circumstances? And those denigrating him in this instance are falsely claiming that this appeal was a scenario he could have refused to represent, and therefore reaching the false conclusions?

    • I don’t care if he begged to be allowed to represent the guy, everyone gets a lawyer, and I find attempts to demonize a lawyer for representing someone unpopular to be only a step down from police abuses, which itself is only a half step down from infringing on Free Speech…

      • So, out of curiosity, since this seems like an appropriate post to ask it: I’m under the impression that a lawyer has a duty not to lie in the defense of his client. Does a lawyer, then, have an ethical duty not to represent a client he believes to be guilty? I don’t mean “yes, he did it, but there were extenuating circumstances/mental defect/etc,” I mean you think he did it, you think there’s no reason to acquit him.

        Does the duty not to lie mean that the lawyer should refuse to represent that client, as any defense he presented would be one he believed to be untrue/not legally valid? Or does the duty not to lie only extend to not telling material falsehoods, and still allow a lawyer to present a defense that he doesn’t believe to be true as long as he doesn’t *lie* while doing it?

        • No. The lawyer says “my client is not guilty,” meaning “the state can not meet its burden of proof to show guilt, and that’s all it means. The defense attorney isn’t defending the client; he or she is forcing the state to meet its burden of proof. It doesn’t matter whether the lawyer knows the client is innocent or guilty in fact: his duty is exactly the same.

          • I would assume that doesn’t apply to direct falsehood, though- as a lawyer defending a man that I know did it, I can present an alternate theory of the crime (a plausible version of events that the prosecutor can’t establish is much less likely than my client doing it, ergo reasonable doubt) but I can’t choose to pursue a line of defense that my client was somewhere else, because I’d be inciting him to commit perjury. At least that’s how I take it to work, but correction would be welcome.

  5. Mark Levin is generally spot on for political philosophy of the Founders. I think when he says things that he clearly ought to know better about, he labors under the shield of #28 on your rationalization list.

  6. Dunno about this one. As a lawyer I know the rule, and I don’t fault attorneys who take on less than wonderful clients. I’ve faced lawyers representing firemen who wrote totally fraudulent reports, cops who beat women during traffic stops, and one officer who exposed himself to a four year old child. I don’t fault the lawyers for that. I wouldn’t even have faulted Lynn Stewart if she hadn’t crossed the line from representing her client to facilitating further criminal acts. I don’t fault this guy for taking on the Mumia case, apart from questioning whether he did it for publicity or knew he was taking on a lost cause. However, this appointment is as much about the politics as about the law, and the fact that this guy took on, at one point, a politically loaded case that is the equivalent of a big red flag that says “hard left” is certainly up for discussion under these circumstances, and especially in light of the fact that the Obama administration has already shown itself to be of the opinion that it can enforce the laws it thinks are good and ignore the rest. Then again, it’s kind of a pointless exercise, since we already know the politics of anyone this administration nominates. I will give you that the line about the consonants/vowels statement was a cheap shot.

    • Politics are irrelevant to the post. Completely. The presumption that the lawyer took the case because of political sympathy with the cause, if there is one, is unwarranted. Alan Dershsowitz defended Klaus Von Bulow, which allowed him to take on more pro bono cases. Why is he immune from those assumptions and this nominee is not? If they want to prove the nominee is a radical, this representation is off the table, because the most conservative lawyer in the nation should have, and might well have, taken it on.

        • It was not my intention to say that reference was ok, it’s not, but I was reluctant to level the accusation of racism since it wasn’t a naked reference to skin color or cultural behavior stereotypes.

          • I’m inclined to agree with that distinction, Steve-O, I don’t think “racist” is the right word, but I’d be inclined to call it xenophobic. “He’s got a funny sounding name, he must be a FOREIGNER, he’s probably WEIRD.

            • Xenophobic is more accurate, except that it suggests a malady rather than bias and bigotry, which is the card Mark was playing. Levin is better than that, or I thought he was. Frankly, I think Obama is driving him crazy.

              • Yeah… I have the same issues with xenophobic as with homophobic or transphobic- they suggest fear where dislike, distaste, or hostility would be more appropriate, and suggest mental illness rather than just unpleasant attitude.

            • For what it’s worth, that looks like a Yoruba name, such as is found in south-west Nigeria. If so, it has been shortened for ordinary use, which is also common (like not using someone’s middle name). It would be understandable if someone made rebuttable presumptions about him based on Yoruba stereotypes and on the kind of Yoruba likely to travel abroad (which is also backed by a feature of his name, the presence in it of “oba” or “ade”).

              • My understanding is the same as Jack’s. I was taught that white trash is racist though. It took some time to remove it from my vocabulary.

                • I don’t have to remove it from my vocabulary. Just as black people can use the “n word,” I can say white trash- it’s my people, and we’re taking the word back 😀

                • Dunno, I never intended what I said as such, and I never thought whitewash was pretending nothing happened, more that it was minimizing misconduct. Please note I never said that the name-play was all right, or not misconduct, I just said it was a cheap shot, which was apparently not forceful enough condemnation.

                  • I’m not trying to be severe, Steve, but a cheap shot is unmannerly, a below the belt remark that exploits a weakness for an advantage the cheap-shooter should have eschewed. I’ll cop to cheap shots from time to time–sometimes they are funny, or irresistible. This was a cheat and bigoted shot, I believe, and I think that while “cheap shot” is correct, it lets Levin off the hook. He takes cheap shots all the time, like making fun of how people talk. This crosses other lines.

                    • Understood, and it was never my intention to let him off the hook, there’s plenty to criticize this guy about without going that route. BTW, I looked this guy up, he doesn’t seem to have actively taken part in the MAJ case, only been at the helm of an organization that was already involved when he came to the helm by the death of the previous president of it. So these attacks are basically guilt by association. It is also not like he was out in the front lines of this case. In long and short he isn’t a crackpot still saying MAJ was a journalist who didn’t do it long after the question of his guilt or innocence was put to rest. The right took the lazy approach here of using MAJ as mud, actually blood would be a better comparison, to smear this guy before his nomination got far, same as the left would dredge up the fact that someone worked for a firm that represented Focus on the Family even if they didn’t actually work on any cases.

        • And can be inaccurate to boot. I walked into a college class with the knowledge it was to be taught by “Jetze Tepe,” preparing myself to struggle to understand an international professor. Then he turned out to be a middle-aged white guy whose accent placed him from the distant land of Ohio. Well, you know what happens when you assume…

      • Nope. It follows that every defendant is entitled to counsel and to choose what counsel he can afford. It does not follow that every lawyer is entitled to elected or appointed political office without a complete vetting of everything he has done in his career, including if he has taken on politically sensitive cases that show which way he might lean when executing his office. You yourself have pointed out, and rightly so, that it is the executive branch’s duty to enforce the law, not make it or ignore enforecement when it would rather not. The Obama administration has consistently fild to live up to tht obligation. I don’t see why we shouldn’t know what kind of a person we are getting. Choice of cases is one way to tell. How is this any different than the attcks on John Edwards (an ethical turd for other reasons) pointing up the fact that he spent his life destroying health care providers through malpractice suits?

        • “It does not follow that every lawyer is entitled to elected or appointed political office without a complete vetting of everything he has done in his career, including if he has taken on politically sensitive cases that show which way he might lean when executing his office.”

          This sentence stands out in contrast to the rest, because it is dead, dead wrong. Why? Because taking on those cases cannot show where he would lean, and it wrong to raise them. Tim Kaine, when running for governor in Virgina, was attacked because he represented murderers in criminal trials, and the suggestion was that this meant he was soft on murderers. That’s crap. If you want to prove it, use something else, conduct that the lawyer is not urged to do by his profession notwithstanding his beliefs.

          Your approach inevitably undermines the rights of unpopular defendants, by creating a disincentive for young lawyers to take the chance that an act of principle and courage will be warped into seeming like shameful conduct by political critics.

          “How is this any different than the attacks on John Edwards (an ethical turd for other reasons) pointing up the fact that he spent his life destroying health care providers through malpractice suits?” The only legitimate beef with Edwards is that he was (some claim) pushing fake torts past gullible juries. That’s unethical. Lawyers have the discretion to reject bad claims and theories, and should. That’s not the case here. The convict was seeking freedom because of a colorable claim the the trial was unfair; he wasn’t seeking a cheap pay-off on an imaginary tort. How a lawyer represents someone is fair game for criticism—Stephen Douglas (falsely) argued that Lincoln, in that case I mentioned, faked evidence he didn’t have. THAT’s unethical. THAT can be criticized. But not defending a guilty man.

      • “Politics are irrelevant to the post.”

        One of the reasons I keep coming back to this site is that I’m continually astounded at the number of times where, when setting politics aside, we’re in complete agreement. This is one of them.

        Trying to pin the views or the actions of a client on his or her lawyer is a direct assault on the due process of law, which includes the right to be represented by counsel.

        My favorite citation of that is John Adams’ heroic defense of the unheroic actions of the defendants in the Boston Massacre.

        Once upon a time, that kind of principled stand in support of due process could get you elected President, even though there were issues involved where, if politics was the only goal, you’d be permanently disqualified.

        As evidenced by what you wrote here, in some corners, that still exists.

        However, speaking as an openly gay liberal Democrat who quite proudly worked for George W. Bush for four years, could I ask that you stop talking about “The Right” and “The Left”?

        Call individuals out on their positions on the issues all you want. If you didn’t do that, you’d be part of the problem across the board.

        But your “right-left” rhetoric comes off as an attempt to deny the existence of common ground. And there’s a lot of common ground out there. So stop with the stereotyping.

        • There is even a book by that title (“Common Ground”) which is relevant here because it’s about the ethics of politics. A liberal and a conservative co-wrote it to describe all that they share and to put a harsh spotlight on people who make their living frightening one faction about the other.

        • But there is a right and a left, Chris, and it is made up of the ideologues and those who lazily align their beliefs, biases and principles along a template. They are teams. The allegiances within those teams shift a bit, and the teams hide their identities (liberals? progressives?), and some members have integrity and don’t automatically follow every play. What is the group that automatically supports and defends progressive policies even when the are failing? Idiots? Or the Left? What is the group that discards principle and logic to bring down a presumed progressive lawyer appointee based on a smear, as in this case? The Right? That implies more intractable ruthlessness to me than “conservatives,” and Republicans is too broad. I agree that’s it’s not quite correct. I’m happy to agree on labels, but labels are necessary. I’m not especially happy with any of them.

  7. Jack, thank you! I am smarter for having read that post.

    It’s unfair to hang this on “the right” unless the entire machine of Fox News, chain emails, and the Republican leadership is getting behind it.

    As long as there was a sufficiently large and diverse pool of lawyers to choose among, wouldn’t citizens still have access to justice even if lawyers played favorites?

    I’ve seen lawyers refuse to take on a case because they thought they would lose, or because they usually represent a different interest group from the person asking their help (e.g. refusing to take a shareholder suit, without a specific conflict of interest, because they usually represent executives). Ethical or unethical?

    • Well, if they are refusing because they think that they could not do their job as required by ethical guidelines, they are ethically required to turn down the case (like, someone who lost a family member to a drunk driver turning down DUI cases, or someone who’s little sister was raped refusing to defend rapists).

      • That makes sense, and addresses another example I was wondering about. A criminal attorney unwilling to use cross-examination techniques on children would then be on good ethical grounds to turn down the business of (alleged!) baby rapers, because he or she couldn’t do the job? Or is that unwillingness ipso facto proof that the lawyer should change careers?

  8. If J. Christian Adams either (bad) can’t even spell “habeas corpus”, or (worse) can’t be bothered to proofread even for elementary typos a piece expressing legal material that people might rely on, what kind of lawyer is he himself?

  9. I think it is worthy of noting that the resident right wingers have not jumped into knee jerk defense of their representatives behavior. But acknowledgement its incorrectness.

  10. Politics are irrelevant
    They should be but they are not.
    People are so disgusted with Obama at this point that their loathing for him colors every situation he is involved in.

    That is also why Mark Levin is losing it.

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