The difficult cases

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I never heard of Debo Adegbile, the lawyer President Barack Obama nominated to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division until I read about him in the March 6 paper (“Senate Dems Reject Justice Pick Despite Obama’s Appeals”). I don’t know if he was otherwise qualified to serve in that position, but he should not have been disqualified because he once represented an unpopular client. 

The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, after having held the same position in the NAACP as Mr. Adegbile did, ultimately received Senate confirmation three times even though he undertook more direct roles in several cases that were, in historical context, probably more unpopular than the single case upon which the Senate hinged Mr. Adegbile’s rejection.

As Americans, we are proud to say that we live in a country governed by the rule of law, but by definition that rule works for all of us only when it works at the margins, in the most difficult cases. 

Lawyers are often called upon to protect the legal rights even of those who are not rich, famous or well-liked. Whether or not Mr. Adegbile otherwise deserved to be confirmed, the rule of law failed when his nomination was rejected merely because he invoked the law’s protection for a client reviled in some parts or even all of his own community. 

His rejection weakens our historic national commitment to that rule — one of our country’s first principles — because those empowered to preserve it ignored the important role a lawyer serves in a difficult case, instead allowing their votes to be controlled by ill-directed anger or vengeance, not by reason.

Though Mr. Adegbile’s role in that representation was undisputedly minor, it remains an act of courage, consistent with his obligation to the court, to his client and to our society, too.

Attorney at Law


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