Debo Adegbile, by all accounts a whip-smart lawyer and legal scholar of impeccable integrity, lost his bid on Wednesday for Senate confirmation to serve as head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
The 45-52 vote was cast in news accounts as an embarrassing defeat for President Obama, who saw seven Democratic senators join with the Republican minority to block Adegbile's confirmation.
The real losers may turn out to be American voters however. With state legislators in much of the country pondering new restrictions on voting rights as we head for a fiercely contested congressional election, the DOJ desperately needs strong leadership in its civil rights shop. Lawyers there should be a critical first line of defense against the wave of voter ID laws that would make it more difficult for tens of thousands of college students, the elderly and infirm, to cast their ballots.
In the right hands, the civil rights division also could provide the administration with a splendid platform to make its case for action in Congress to overhaul the Voting Rights Act and undo damage done by last summer's Supreme Court ruling weakening that law's "pre-clearance provisions.
Given the glacial pace of affairs on Capitol Hill these days, it likely will take weeks and perhaps months for the administration to find and screen a new nominee. The Senate probably will need even more time for committee hearings and votes on whoever Obama selects. Bottom line: the new top cop for enforcing our civil rights laws is unlikely to be on the beat soon enough to protect voters before Election Day.
All that's bad enough. But there's another unsettling dimension to this story. Critics of Adegbile's nomination did not challenge his legal or ethical qualifications. Their stated objections revolved around the small part he played 30-plus years ago in the legal defense of a man ultimately convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer.
To go after a lawyer on such grounds is to attack a principle at the heart of our legal system: that every person charged with a crime -- no matter how heinous -- is entitled to vigorous representation.
No less a legal icon than Chief Justice John Roberts, a law-and-order conservative if I've ever seen one, has stood up for that principle. Before going on the bench, Roberts was involved in the defense of a Florida man now on death row for murdering eight people. No one suggested that made him unfit to serve.
Now, with Adegbile, a different standard of review may be taking hold, with ominous implications for American justice. If we start disqualifying from government service every lawyer who has represented a guilty client or stood up in court for an unpopular cause, the quality of candidates in the talent pool won't just suffer, it will disappear.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Voting and Elections