An important news item caught my eye this week. The president nominated Debo P. Adegbile for Assistant Attorney General a few months ago. This week his nomination failed to garner the requisite number of votes in the Senate.
The primary issue with the nomination of Adegbile was presented as a sound bite describing him as an “Unrepentant Defender of Cop Killers.” Sarah Palin described him as a “Cop Killer Advocate.” The sentiment ran deep enough that even with a majority of Democrats in the Senate, the nomination failed.
I think there is something fundamental about the work of lawyers that is being missed in this conversation. I also think that this mistake is a symptom of something that is too prevalent in the Orthodox Jewish world and apparently the rest of the world too.
Lawyers are professionals who are trained to argue on behalf of their clients. They make no moral judgments about their clients. They do not decide guilt or innocence. A lawyer acting in his capacity as lawyer is simply a well trained voice for the client. He says what his client should say. The lawyer does not condone or support the actions of his client. The lawyer should not condemn or criticize his client either. In essence, the lawyer is a tool. The lawyer is not a friend who comes along for moral support or to cheer on his client. That’s not a lawyer’s role. Lawyers argue on behalf of their client regardless of their personal beliefs and are agnostic about their client’s alleged actions.
Adegbile was not making a moral statement by representing a man convicted of killing a cop. His job is not to agree with his client, rather his job is to argue on behalf of his client. In the interest of justice and the greater good, it is incumbent upon society that lawyers represent the innocent and guilty with the same gusto and passion. This is what a fair system demands of us. If we do not defend the guilty we subvert the entire justice system. Punishing a lawyer for doing his job on behalf of a client, and in truth, on behalf of the Constitution, is far more immoral than representing a cop killer.
Drill down a little deeper and the failed nomination becomes even more ludicrous. The cop killer in question is Mumia Abu-Jamal who is convicted of killing a police officer in 1981. In 1981 Adegbile was 16 years old. Obviously, he didn’t defend a cop killer at his trial. So what do they mean that Adegbile is a Cop Killer Advocate? This accusation refers to Adegbile’s work at the NAACP where one of his duties was to file briefs to the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of black convicts who were tried before disproportionately-white juries. The NAACP filed an amicus brief arguing that disproportionately-white juries were unconstitutional because they did not ensure a fair trial. This legal argument makes absolutely no statement about the guilt or innocence of any cop killers. It simply attempts to ensure that they were granted a fair trial. We all deserve a fair trial and as a society we must demand that all trials are administered fairly. The issue is not whether their argument about disproportionately-white juries has any merit. Ignore that. The issue is simply that they are arguing for a fair trial. They are not arguing for Abu-Jamal’s innocence at all.
Adegbile was part of the team of lawyers that argued that an disproportionately-white jury in the early 1980′s would not ensure a fair trial. This is a noble argument and possibly true. It’s not a crazy idea. But more importantly, he never defended or advocated on behalf of a cop killer. He advocated on behalf of fairness and justice. If Abu-Jamal is guilty, let him be convicted in a fair trial. That is the argument.
In other words, not only is it completely immoral to punish a lawyer for the client he represents, the truth is that Adegbile did not really represent Abu-Jamal in a trial regarding his innocence or guilt. He represented a convicted cop killer seeking to ensure that he was given a fair trial.
The efforts to block Adegbile based on these facts disturbs me greatly. It’s not about political parties or liberals vs. conservatives. In my opinion, anyone who blocked the nomination for this reason was wrong. If there are other concerns, I understand blocking a nominee. But this saga focused almost solely on the propriety of a cop killer advocate working as an Assistant Attorney General.
Which leads me to the broader point. People are obsessed with guilt by association. We have a very hard time dealing with people when they are connected, even very loosely, with people or groups we find distasteful. In the Orthodox Jewish community we see this in very stark terms. Orthodox rabbis are extremely reluctant to associate with non-Orthodox rabbis. It’s guilt by association. People think that if Orthodox Rabbi A speaks at the same event as Non-Orthodox Rabbi B, people will think that A agrees with B about everything and that A is endorsing B. Such silliness! People can disagree and still talk to each other!
Parents will choose not to send to certain schools because there are other parents in the school that are not “frum enough” for them. The decision of where to send children to school should be about education, not association.
Similarly, people have a hard time seeing that making an argument on behalf of another person or group of people is not a letter of approbation. It’s simply an opportunity to see things from another perspective. Take it or leave it. But don’t leave it and leave the person making the argument too. One can advocate for tolerance or understanding even when one disagrees. This is something we need to work on. Our communities become so narrow and disconnected from other communities when we overvalue association. We need to learn how to be friends, or even just acquaintances, without completely absorbing the other worldview and the public must learn not to make drastic judgments based on associations.
If it’s any comfort, it appears that this is a universal flaw. As the Adegbile saga indicates, too many people are incapable of parsing out the facts of a given situation. Those people prefer to make blanket judgments and simplistic assumptions based on association alone.
I am ashamed that a lawyer was railroaded in this way. It does not bode well for other advocates for criminals. It also reminds us that we have a lot of work to do in unraveling our assumptions and seeing things for what they actually are as opposed to what we imagine they represent.
Visit Fink or Swim.Rabbi Eliyahu Fink