Debo Adegbile



  • Former attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
  • Fought to overturn former Black Panther Mumia Abu Jamal’s conviction for the 1981 killing of a white Philadelphia police officer
  • Staunch supporter of affirmative action
  • Opposes Voter ID laws
  • Was appointed as senior counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee (by President Barack Obama) in 2014

Born in the Bronx, New York in 1967, 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 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 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. Adegbile argued to the U.S. Supreme Court that Christian churches should not continue to enjoy the same constitutional protections of the “ministerial exception,” as churches had for centuries. 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 children were being disciplined at disproportionately high rates.

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.1

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 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 the school’s existing “race-neutral efforts” had resulted in the enrollment of an “unacceptably low” number of “underrepresented minority students”; that “diversity’s educational benefits go to the heart of our democracy”; and that, “[b]y 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 Act2—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 based on outdated racial circumstances.

Adegbile has also supported the Justice Department’s federal lawsuits against Voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina.

In early January 2014 it was reported that President Obama was likely to appoint Adegbile—who at the time was senior counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee—to replace Thomas Perez as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. In response to these reports, America’s largest police 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.3

On March 5, 2014, the Senate voted 52-47 against Adegbile’s confirmation. Eight Democrats were among those who voted “No.”

For additional information on Debo Adegbile, click here.


1 Joining Adegbile on the advisory board were such notables as Wade Henderson, Ben Jealous, and affiliates of the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Center for American Progress, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, and the Open Society Institute.

2 Adegbile has characterized the Voting Rights Act as “Alabama’s gift to this country.”

[3] 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.”

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