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Jordan Anthony Olsen, Published March 17 2014

Letter: ND senators’ vote undermines basic responsibility of lawyers

On March 5, the U.S. Senate moved for a cloture vote in the nomination of Debo Adegbile to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Predictably, all Republicans voted no. Unfortunately, so did seven Democrats. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., was one of them.

The reason presented for this was because, while working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Adegbile helped write an appellate brief for a man named Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer named Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death. Because there was evidence that racial bias was involved in the conviction and sentencing, Adegbile helped to advocate against his execution. Not only was Adegbile simply doing his job, the argument was found to have merit and Adegbile’s sentence was commuted. Abu-Jamal now serves life in prison without the possibility of parole.

You can look into this and make your own decision as to whether the question of Abu-Jamal’s guilt remains unsettled. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Adegbile was qualified and his nomination was blocked because he did what he was supposed to: advocate for his client’s rights.

But the message Sens. Heitkamp and John Hoeven, R-N.D., have sent is that an attorney who advocates for someone’s rights, also must advocate what they have done or have been accused of doing. Our senators have sent the message that if you have political and career aspirations you should not go into public service, civil rights practice or criminal defense work because if your clients are found guilty, you will be guilty by association.

The real reason Republicans did not want Adegbile nominated was because of his work on voting rights. Ironically, just hours after her vote, Sen. Heitkamp sent out an email about how voting rights are under attack.

You were used, Sen. Heitkamp. Not only were you used, you sent a shameful message to all current and future attorneys, and the public at large. As North Dakota’s former attorney general, she should know better.


Olsen is a third-year student at the University of North Dakota School of Law.