Born in the Bronx, New York in December 1966, Debo Adegbile (pronounced Day’-bo Ad-eg’-bee-lay) was a child actor on the television show Sesame Street for nine years during the 1970s. After attending Connecticut College and the New York University School of Law, he became an attorney and spent the first seven years of his professional career with a New York City-based law firm. Adegbile then served in various capacities with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDEF) from 2001 through May 2013, including eight months as the organization’s acting president and director counsel during 2012.
While at the NAACP, Adegbile authored a brief that aimed to strip members of the Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church of the right to practice their faith and appoint ministers of the church as they saw fit. He argued to the U.S. Supreme Court that Christian churches should not continue to enjoy the traditional constitutional protections of “ministerial exception” from employment discrimination laws (related to variables like sexual orientation or gender identity). Instead, he held that the government should have a say in who could be a minister of a Christian church. The Court rejected Adegbile’s arguments, 9-0.
Also during his tenure at the NAACP, Adegbile argued that racial discrimination by teachers and principals was surely to blame for the fact that black schoolchildren were being disciplined at disproportionately high rates, as compared to their non-black peers.
In April 2005 Adegbile participated in a panel at a Yale Law School conference titled “The Constitution in 2020.” The event—whose goal was to lay out a blueprint for the evolution of a new, “progressive” U.S. Constitution within 15 years—was sponsored by George Soros’s Open Society Institute and the Center for American Progress.
In 2008 Adegbile served on an advisory board that helped the Soros-funded American Constitution Society produce a 44-page paper urging President Barack Obama to establish, by executive fiat, a new agency designed to close the “gap between the human rights ideals that the United States professes and its actual domestic practice.” Specifically, the paper condemned the U.S. for engaging in “torture” as well as “cruel, inhuman [and] degrading treatment … in the name of counterterrorism”; lamented that “inequalities persist in access to housing, education, jobs, and health care”; denounced “gross racial disparities in the application of the death penalty”; impugned the “racial and ethnic profiling that has been used unfairly to target” nonwhites and Muslims; and charged that a “pay gap persists between female and male workers.” The paper also pressed Obama to “nominate judges who will [recognize] that ratified treaties and customary international law are the law of the land” in America.
In 2009 Adegbile and a number of other NAACP-LDEF lawyers voluntarily filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that former Black Panther Mumia Abu Jamal‘s conviction for the 1981 killing of a white Philadelphia police officer should be overturned because of racial discrimination in the jury-selection process. (There had been only two blacks on Abu Jamal’s jury, though there would have been a third, had Abu Jamal himself not instructed his lawyer to reject that individual.)
In 2011, when Adegbile was the NAACP-LDEF’s director of litigation, the organization successfully represented Abu-Jamal in an appeal that resulted (in 2012) in the reduction of the defendant’s death sentence to life-imprisonment-without-parole. In the course of their effort to help Abu Jamal, Adegbile and his fellow attorneys depicted the cop-killer as a political prisoner. For example, a 2011 NAACP-LDEF press release stated: “Abu Jamal is widely viewed as a symbol of the racial injustices of the death penalty…. [His] conviction and death sentence are relics of a time and place that was notorious for police abuse and racial discrimination.” Moreover, NAACP-LDEF lawyers under Adebile’s supervision held rallies and protests on Abu Jamal’s behalf.
Adegbile passionately defends affirmative action and opposes the right of employers to conduct criminal-background checks on prospective hires—on the premise that such checks have a disproportionately negative effect on African Americans.
In a high-profile 2012 case, Adegbile successfully argued against plaintiff Abigail Noel Fisher, a white woman who asserted that the University of Texas (UT) Law School’s affirmative-action policy had blocked her from securing admission to that institution. A brief that Adegbile filed on behalf of UT’s Black Student Alliance argued that the policy was justified because: (a) the school’s existing “race-neutral efforts” had resulted in the enrollment of an “unacceptably low” number of “underrepresented minority students”; (b) “diversity’s educational benefits go to the heart of our democracy”; and (c) “by virtue of our Nation’s struggle with racial inequality, [nonwhite] students are both likely to have experiences of particular importance to [a university’s] mission, and less likely to be admitted in meaningful numbers [based] on criteria that ignore these experiences.”
Adegbile, who believes that “a troubling strain of obstructing the path to the ballot box remains a part of our society,” has twice argued cases in the Supreme Court defending the 1965 Voting Rights Act—most recently in 2013. On that occasion, he defended Section 5 of the Act, which required that in fifteen separate (mostly Southern) states, no existing election laws could be altered in any way without first being pre-cleared by either the Justice Department or a federal court. The Court ruled that Section 5 was both unconstitutional and anachronistic.
Adegbile has also supported the Justice Department’s federal lawsuits against Voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina.
In 2013-14 Adegbile served as senior counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. In the midst of that tenure — in early January 2014 — it was reported that President Obama was likely to appoint Adegbile to replace Thomas Perez as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. In response to these reports, America’s largest law-enforcement organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, sent a letter to Obama expressing “extreme disappointment, displeasure and vehement opposition” to the nomination of a man who had worked so hard on behalf of a convicted cop-killer, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Added the letter: “This nomination can be interpreted in only one way: it is a thumb in the eye of our nation’s law enforcement officers. It demonstrates a total lack of regard or empathy for those who strive to keep you and everyone else in our nation safe in your homes and neighborhoods—sometimes giving their lives in the effort.”
On March 5, 2014, the Senate voted 52-47 against Adegbile’s confirmation. Eight Democrats were among those who voted “No.” Six months later, Adegbile became a partner in the Washington-based WilmerHale law firm.
In December 2016, President Obama appointed Adegbile to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Soon after the Obama administration came to an end in January 2017, Adegbile returned to WilmerHale, serving as a member of its Government and Regulatory Litigation Group and as co-chair of its anti-discrimination practice.