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Yalies to Senator Coons: reconsider civil rights nominee

Debo Adegbile is not a Yale alumnus. But he has a couple hundred boosters at Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School—and they want Chris Coons ’92MAR, ’92JD, to join the fan club.

Adegbile is a civil rights lawyer whom President Barack Obama nominated to become assistant attorney general for civil rights. Coons, a US Senator from Delaware, was one of seven Democrats to vote against the nominee this month, joining Republicans who rejected him because he once helped represent convicted cop-killler Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Obama called the March 5 vote "a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant." The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where Adegbile worked when the organization worked on Abu-Jamal's appeal, is calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—who eventually joined the seven anti-Adegbile Democrats—to schedule a new vote.

And 200-plus students, alumni, and faculty members from the Law School and Divinity School—where Coons earned degrees in 1992—have signed an open letter asking the senator to change his mind.

"Your vote alarmed us," the letter says. "It signaled a lack of respect for the fundamental American legal principle that all parties have a right to zealous representation, and sent a message that young people considering public service careers should avoid work on behalf of unpopular or marginalized communities and clients."

A Coons spokesman says the senator has no comment on the Yalies' letter. In a statement explaining his March 5 vote, Coons acknowledged that Adegbile "has had a significant and broad career as a leading civil rights advocate, and would be an asset to the Justice Department." What's more, he said, "I understand the importance of having legal advocates willing to fight for even the most despicable clients, and I embrace the proposition that an attorney is not responsible for the actions of their client."

Nonetheless, Coons said, "the decades-long public campaign by others . . . to elevate a heinous, cold-blooded killer to the status of a political prisoner and folk hero has caused tremendous pain" to the widow of the Philadelphia police officer Abu-Jamal killed and has "shown great disrespect for law enforcement officers and families."

Coons became the surprise frontrunner in a 2010 special election to Vice President Joe Biden's old Senate seat, after Delaware Republicans nominated the Tea Party-endorsed Christine O'Donnell. He faces reelection this November.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Chris Coons, Law School, Divinity School, Debo Adegbile
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