Fox News Can't Tell All These Civil Rights Attorneys Apart

Blog ››› ››› MEAGAN HATCHER-MAYS

Fox News continued its attacks on Debo Adegbile, President Obama's pick to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and seemingly conflated the advocacy efforts of a different civil rights attorney with Adegbile's legal work as proof of his supposedly "radical" past.

On March 5, all Senate Republicans and a handful of Democrats voted to block Adegbile's nomination following a smear campaign against Adegbile's sterling legal record by leveling racially-charged attacks and linking him to the crimes of his former client, Mumia Abu-Jamal. As a top official at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund (LDF), Adegbile and a team of lawyers were successful in overturning Abu-Jamal's death sentence due to constitutional error. Because of the unconstitutional sentencing, Abu-Jamal's punishment was ultimately commuted to a life sentence after prosecutors elected not to pursue the death penalty for a second time. 

After the failed Senate confirmation vote, Fox News continued its debunked attack that Adegbile was a "cop killer's coddler" for representing Abu-Jamal. The network then introduced a new argument that Adegbile's criminal defense work was politicized and that he "crusaded" for Abu-Jamal, "revealing a bitter bias." Referencing "critics," and Fox contributor Jonah Goldberg, Bret Baier claimed that Adegbile "went beyond the legal work and it was more about political rallies and leading rallies for Mumia and kind of became more political in his support for this character." Fox News contributor J. Christian Adams went even further:

[Adegbile] was not nominated in spite of his defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, he was nominated because of it. Because these folks think that Mumia was innocent. It is not just a question of giving somebody their day in court. Adegbile took on the wider cause, claiming America was unjust towards people of color. It was because of this rancid racial attitude that President Obama appointed him in the first place and that is why he is mad.

But on January 9, Adams made it clear that the advocacy on behalf of defendants of color he objected to was that of LDF attorney Christina Swarns, who was the counsel of record on Abu-Jamal's case and Adegbile's colleague at the time. Frequent Fox guest and Townhall.com news editor Katie Pavlich also correctly distinguished Swarns in her earlier attack on Adegbile. Other right-wing media similarly linked Adegbile to Swarns, such as The Daily Caller, which nevertheless condemned Adegbile for saying the LDF "strengthens the very fabric of democracy" at a memorial for the late president of the LDF, John Payton, because Swarns spoke after Adegbile at the service and read a condolence note for Payton from Abu-Jamal.

In their questioning of Adegbile, even Republican senators made clear this so-called politicized behavior at rallies they were concerned about was that of Swarns, not Adegbile. From the Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire from January 27: 

9. On January 28, 2011, your colleague Christina A. Swarns, who appears with you on two LDF Supreme Court briefs on which you are counsel of record, stated at a rally for Mr. Abu-Jamal that "there is no question in the mind of anyone at the Legal Defense Fund that the justice system has completely and utterly failed Mumia Abu-Jamal and in our view, that has everything to do with race and that is why the legal defense fund is in this case."

a. Does Ms. Swarns's claim that the "justice system...completely and utterly failed Mumia Abu-Jamal in [LDF's] view" refer to LDF's prior allegations of a culture of racial discrimination in the Philadelphia County District Attorney's Office?

ANSWER: Ms. Swarns was counsel of record on the aforementioned briefs; I was not. I am not familiar with Ms. Swarns' comments and am not aware of the context in which they were offered. I do not know what Ms. Swarns had in mind when she made the comment.

[...]

c. At a New York Free Mumia Coalition event in 2011, Christina Swarms, your colleague at LDF at the time, included you when she stated, "There is no question in the mind of anyone at the Legal Defense Fund that the justice system has completely and utterly failed Mumia Abu-Jamal and, in our view, that has everything to do with race and that is why the legal defense fund is in this case."

i. Do you believe that the justice system had at that time "completely and utterly failed Mumia Abu-Jamal"? If so, in what ways?

ANSWER: I do not know what Ms. Swarns had in mind when she made this comment. I know that the court found that there was a constitutional infirmity in the sentencing phase of Mr. Abu Jamal's case and accordingly vacated his death sentence and he was resentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

ii. Do you believe that such a failure had "everything to do with race"? If so, please explain your reasoning.

ANSWER: I do not know what Ms. Swarns meant by this comment.

iii. If you do not agree with Ms. Swarms statement, why do you believe LDF took on this case? 

ANSWER: John Payton, LDF's late President and Director-Counsel, made the decision that LDF would represent Mr. Abu Jamal based upon an assessment of the constitutional claim.

Yet now, Fox News personalities are claiming it was a politicized and "crusad[ing]" Adegbile who "took on the wider cause" and "went beyond the legal work" in his criminal defense work at LDF, a dubious characterization of facts they previously attributed to Swarns. Apparently, Fox will stop at nothing to paint Obama's nominee as "radical" even if it means loading his biography with a different attorney's backstory.

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