The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which has been tasked by Attorney General Eric Holder to help lead an investigation into the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has been without a confirmed leader since July 2013.
And because of Congressional gridlock and election-year politics, it’s likely that the civil rights department will not get a confirmed assistant attorney general any time soon.
In March, the Senate blocked President Barack Obama’s pick to lead the division, civil rights lawyer Debo Adegbile. Seven Democrats joined Republicans in opposing Adegbile because of his leadership role at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, which in 2009 submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia policeman.
Major police unions lobbied senators, especially in the Philadelphia area, to vote against proceeding on the Adegbile vote on the grounds that he sympathized with a cop-killer. A mix of senators up for re-election in 2014, red-state Democrats, and those representing Philadelphia-area constituents voted to filibuster the nomination.
Democratic Senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and John Walsh of Montana all voted “no” on proceeding with the Adegbile nomination. At the time, Coons, Pryor and Walsh were in active re-election campaigns, though Walsh has since ended his campaign amid a plagiarism scandal.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Democrat who has served in the Senate for three decades and is retiring this winter, called the Adegbile filibuster “the lowest point” of his career. He pointed to the successful Senate confirmation of John Roberts to be chief justice of the United States, even though Roberts previously had worked for a law firm that took on a murderer as a pro-bono client.
“Earlier today a vote was taken in the United States Senate that, to this Senator, marked about the lowest point that I think this Senate has descended into in my 30 years here,” Harkin said, hours after the March vote.
“If you are a young black person, and you go to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and … they assign you to appeal a case of someone who committed a heinous murder … the message sent today is don’t do it. Don’t do it. Because you know what, if you do that, in keeping with your legal obligations and your profession, you will be denied by the U.S. Senate from being an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice,” Harkin continued.
Though the Adegbile nomination was shelved, it could be brought up again at any time.
In the wake of the protests in Missouri and new attention to a wave of shootings of unarmed young, black men by police officers nationwide, the Department of Justice has publicly committed to ensuring that justice is served. But there does not seem to be any pressure on the Senate to act to install a leader at the civil rights division. Even if such pressure did exist, it seems unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who would do most anything to keep his fragile majority, would hold the vote again — or that the Obama administration would withdraw Adegbile’s nomination and admit that a qualified civil rights lawyer is unconfirmable.
The only natural window to confirm Adegbile, if Obama sticks with his choice, would be the lame-duck session after the November 4 midterm elections, when both parties are more likely to take on more challenging votes.
More than a half-dozen Senate Democratic aides were approached for this story, but only a Reid spokesman responded, saying that it would be up to White House officials to determine "how they want to handle" it.
Spokespeople for the Department of Justice referred inquiries to the White House because the agency does not “really comment” on nominations. A Department of Justice spokeswoman provided comment after publication of this story to reflect that the civil rights division's work is not compromised in pursuing the Ferguson probe: "While it is important to have a confirmed Assistant Attorney General, Molly Moran is providing strong leadership since being named as acting head and will ensure a full and fair investigation," spokeswoman Dena Iverson wrote in an e-mail.
When asked why, then, Moran would not be sumitted to the Senate for confirmation instead of Adegbile, given the department's current support of her work, Iverson said, "You have our statement."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Update, Aug. 15, 1:00 p.m.: This story was updated to reflect additional comment on the situation from a Department of Justice spokeswoman.