• AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File
  • NAACP lawyer Debo Adegbile outside the Supreme Court in 2009

A battle had been brewing over President Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department.

In January, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights called Adegbile “one of the preeminent civil rights litigators of his generation” and a “consensus builder.”

But Adegbile had worked for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, and in that capacity he’d played a role in the appeals of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who’d killed a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981. Abu-Jamal was convicted of that crime in 1982 and sentenced to death. His conviction was upheld on appeal, but in 2012 his sentence was commuted to life. Adegbile’s involvement in the case began after the sentence was commuted.

Police groups lobbied strongly against Adegbile’s nomination, and in January, Fox News Channel host Greg Gutfeld called him a “cop-killer’s coddler.” Gutfeld added: “In a nation of sanctimonious attorneys, Obama picks this guy? What, none of the chaps he’s releasing from Gitmo were free, or is he saving them for cabinet posts?”

Yesterday, the Senate, aided by seven Democrats, blocked Adegbile’s nomination, 52-47.

Obama called the failure to confirm Adegbile “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant.” The president added: “The fact that his nomination was defeated solely based on his legal representation of a defendant runs contrary to a fundamental principle of our system of justice.”

But many conservatives are turning cartwheels. “What the Senate has done is deny Barack Obama the chance to install yet another pet radical in the commanding heights of government,” the National Review Online observes today.

The National Review applauds the seven assisting Democrats “for standing against the president’s habitual radicalism in personnel matters.” Not only had Adegbile participated in Abu-Jamal’s appeal, the National Review goes on, he’d also committed the radical acts of “arguing for the explicit use of racial criteria in college admissions and unsuccessfully campaigning to use civil-rights law to maintain endless federal oversight of elections in certain states, also on racial grounds.”

Given the post for which Adegbile had been nominated, the irony in this story is striking. As Slate put it in a subhead: “Senate blocks Obama’s pick to head the civil rights division because he’s fought for civil rights.”

Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the Republican opposition to Adegbile “an affront to what it means to live in America.”

“This murderer’s a bad guy, but he’s entitled to a lawyer,” Reid said. “The truth is many lawyers represent unpopular clients at some point in their careers.”

Of course they do. It is, after all, a crucial part of their job. It takes little courage to represent popular clients. The representation of the despised is essential in a free nation. The nation is less free every day, however, not because crime is running amok but because demagoguery is.