461397207-senior-counsel-to-the-u-s-senate-judiciary-committee
Debo Adegbile during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, Jan. 8, 2014

Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Wednesday the U.S. Senate voted 47-52 to reject President Barack Obama’s nomination of former NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division—with seven Democrats joining Republicans to prevent the president’s pick from moving forward.

Obama called it a “travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks.”

But a senior Democratic Senate staffer was more blunt, calling Adegbile’s treatment part of a “recurring pattern,” and telling The Root that it has become clear that black nominees are being held to a different standard than white nominees.

“What I see here happening,” he said, “is that for African-American nominees, the bar has been raised to such a high level that it’s impossible for any African-American nominee to seemingly clear it with Republicans.” The staffer cited the extraordinarily contentious confirmation proceedings for former Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), now in charge of the Federal Housing Finance Agency; Jeh Johnson as the new secretary of homeland security; and Robert Wilkins, confirmed as a justice on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, but said that Adegbile’s confirmation process stands out as potentially the most egregious case of racial bias.

Shortly after Adegbile’s nomination was officially dead, RH Reality Check’s Jessica Mason Pieklo wrote that “racism is the best explanation” for why the confirmation failed. And one reason Adegbile’s story is sparking allegations of a double standard is the explanations given by opponents of his nomination for why he was deemed unqualified for the post for which he was being considered.

Adegbile previously served in various capacities, including acting president at the NAACP LDF, an organization once led by the revered first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. But in his role at the LDF, Adegbile was involved in the death-penalty appeal of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black man convicted of murder in the killing of white police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1982. The Abu-Jamal case has long been racially charged, and despite success in the case in 2011—getting Abu-Jamal’s sentence changed from death to life in prison—Adegbile’s involvement earned him criticism from Republicans like Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who called the lawyer an “extremist, radical.”

The Fraternal Order of Police also harshly criticized Adegbile’s role in the Abu-Jamal case, writing to Obama that “the just sentence—death” of “the country’s most notorious cop-killer” was “undone by your nominee.”

Senators opposing Adegbile’s confirmation cited his role in the Abu-Jamal case as rendering him unfit to run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, despite the fact that the rationale being used to thwart his appointment was not deemed a good-enough reason to prevent a previous (Republican) Supreme Court nominee’s Senate confirmation.

Current Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was once in Adegbile’s shoes. As a trial lawyer earlier in his career, he helped defend John Errol Ferguson, a convicted serial murderer, back in the 1970s. When Ferguson’s case came before the Supreme Court in 2012, the chief justice recused himself from the matter.

Senators didn’t hold Roberts to the same standard that they held Adegbile, and the chief justice was ultimately confirmed as the top judge in the country. But senators denied Adegbile the post of assistant attorney general of civil rights for acting in essentially the same capacity as a criminal-defense lawyer.

The differing treatment of Adegbile and Roberts by the Senate raises the question of why the two men were held to such different standards.

According to the Senate staffer with whom we spoke, the reason is clear. Calling what happened to Agdebile a “smear campaign,” the staffer said, “Of all of the nominees, Agdebile’s had the most racial overtones so far.” The staffer concluded that the larger problem black Obama nominees face and will continue to face is that “because of their skin color, there’s an assumption made” about their ideology, and that assumption is ultimately one that scares most Republicans—and some Democrats—in the Senate from the outset.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.