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Civil rights nominee known for 'Sesame Street,' liberal legal causes

Debo Adegbile, nominee for a civil rights post, is known for a 'Sesame Street' role, but the GOP is focused on his liberal legal record.

December 26, 2013|By Timothy M. Phelps
  • Debo Adegbile is President Obama's nominee to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
Debo Adegbile is President Obama's nominee to lead the Justice Department's… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)

WASHINGTON — Debo Adegbile, President Obama's nominee to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, attributes much of his success as an attorney to a nine-year stint as a child actor on "Sesame Street" in the 1970s.

The unusual resume item brought him a kind of mini-celebrity and was a surprisingly frequent focus of job interviews, Adegbile has said, even as he climbed the legal ranks to join a big New York corporate law firm.

But as he faces Senate confirmation hearings next month, Adegbile is drawing a different kind of attention from conservative activists. They are less interested in stories about the time he explained the letter "S" to the muppet Grover and more curious about his record as an unapologetically liberal voting rights lawyer, his representation of a convicted cop killer and his leadership tenure at the Legal Defense Fund of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

"When he ran the unit at the Legal Defense Fund, they took positions far outside of the mainstream of the law, far outside existing jurisprudence as it relates to race, and really advanced a fringe agenda," said J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department civil rights lawyer who has written a book attacking the Justice Department under Obama. "If he attempts to do the same at the Justice Department it will be a catastrophe."

Adegbile's nomination, along with the recent news that prominent Stanford University law professor Pamela Karlan will be appointed his voting rights deputy, has been seen by many as a sign that the Obama administration is moving to reinvigorate the Justice Department's voting rights division, particularly after a Supreme Court ruling this year voided some important parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Adegbile defended the act's constitutionality on behalf of the Legal Defense Fund during the Supreme Court argument. But the justices ruled that a federal requirement forcing some states to seek Justice Department "pre-clearance" before changing their election laws violated the states' sovereignty.

Turning to Adegbile to be the top civil rights official, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. signaled that he intended to fight back hard to safeguard what remains of the landmark Voting Rights Act and to prevent Southern states from imposing new restrictions or identification requirements at polling stations that Holder argues could effectively disenfranchise minorities.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Adegbile has worked for several months as senior counsel to Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), have not yet taken a stand on him. But given the Senate battle over nominations and criticism by Republicans of the Civil Rights Division under Adegbile's predecessor, fireworks are expected.

"He is just so incredibly suited for this position," said Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the Legal Defense Fund, which was founded in 1940 by former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Among civil rights lawyers, "Debo stands alone in terms of his depth and the breadth of issues [he has worked on] across the board."

Ryan Haygood, a defense fund colleague from the New York office, said Adegbile was raised by a single Irish mother who struggled with poverty and even occasional homelessness when he was a child.

Despite her circumstances and the absence of her son's Nigerian father, Adegbile's mother fought to get her son into top private schools in Manhattan, usually receiving scholarships because of his good grades, Haygood said.

When he was 4 or 5, a friend noticed an ad seeking children to audition for "Sesame Street." Adegbile landed the job and played the part of Debo, a child of the "Sesame Street" neighborhood, until high school. Haygood said his friend had "fond memories of Grover and Cookie Monster" and of meeting Ray Charles during a guest appearance by the singer.

After high school, Adegbile attended Connecticut College and the New York University School of Law.

"His life's trajectory went from humble circumstances in New York City to standing at the podium at the Supreme Court," said Nina Perales, director of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It was a special moment to watch him argue and argue well."

But Adegbile's career has suffered some notable disappointments. In 2012, he was passed over for the top job at the Legal Defense Fund after serving as its acting president for eight months. He was asked to stay on as special counsel.

In fall 2011, Obama asked the American Bar Assn. to evaluate Adegbile for possible appointment to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, normally a precursor to nomination. But later the White House withdrew his name.

Conservative bloggers say the bar association found Adegbile unqualified. But Florida lawyer Ben Hill, who was chairman of the bar association committee, said in an interview that Adegbile's name was withdrawn before he was rated by the group.

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