(CNN) – In a surprisingly strong vote, the Senate on Wednesday blocked President Barack Obama’s controversial choice to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
The bipartisan rejection came after the widow of a slain Philadelphia officer pleaded with senators to vote “no.”
On a 47 to 52 tally, Republicans were joined by seven Democrats voting to continue a filibuster of Debo Adegbile’s nomination for the influential post, which enforces the nation’s anti-discrimination laws.
Under new Senate rules that were put in place by the Democrats who control the chamber, only 51 votes were needed to overcome the filibuster, not the 60 that used to be required.
Critics charged Adegbile helped turn the appeals process for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was found guilty in 1981 of killing police officer Daniel Faulkner, into a racially-charged political cause, and, in doing so, went far beyond his duties as a lawyer.
Abu-Jamal is currently serving life in prison after his death sentence was successfully appealed on questions related to jury instructions.
Adegbile supporters argue he was a diligent attorney for the respected NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which, beginning in 2006, filed briefs on behalf of Abu-Jamal when prosecutors appealed the overturned death sentence.
The President issued a statement calling the outcome of the vote “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant.”
Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey led the charge against Adegbile’s nomination.
“Under Mr. Adegbile’s oversight, LDF lawyers promoted the pernicious myth that Abu-Jamal was an innocent man, that he was framed because of his race,” Toomey said. “There was never any merit to claims of racism.”
Toomey was bolstered by the National Fraternal Order of Police, the powerful police union, which lobbied senators and sent a letter to Obama expressing “extreme disappointment” about the pick.
Abu-Jamal’s “just sentence – death - was undone by your nominee and others like him who turned the justice system on its head with unfounded and unproven allegations of racism, “ the letter said.
Adegbile’s defenders note that he was not the one who made the decision for the LDF to work on Abu-Jamal’s appeal.
“Even if it had been his decision,” argued Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, “it is not something that should disqualify him from serving the public. Our legal system is an adversary system, predicated upon legal advocacy for both sides.”
Adegbile currently works for Leahy on the Judiciary Committee. At his confirmation hearing, Adegbile defended his work on behalf of Abu-Jamal and told Leahy that working on death sentence appeals are the “most harrowing cases.”
“Somebody has been killed and that sends ripples through families, through communities and societies,” he said. “So these are the hardest cases but our commitment in the Constitution is to follow our procedural rules even in those hardest cases.”
Republicans raised other questions about Adegbile, including his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in a high-profile gun rights case. They pressured Democrats, especially those up for re-election, to vote against him.
Casey was the first Democrat to publicly oppose Adegbile. It is important the public has “full confidence in their pubic representatives” he said last week while arguing there are still “open wounds” from Faulkner’s murder.
In addition to Casey, other Democratic senators who opposed the nomination include Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and John Walsh of Montana.
On the Senate floor, Toomey read a letter from Faulkner’s widow: “’I would argue that Mr. Adegbile’s decision to defend a cop killer should preclude him from holding any public position,’” she implored.
“I voted my conscience after having a long conversation with the widow of the slain police officer,” Manchin explained after the vote.
Asked if he thought Adegbile had acted inappropriately in his defense of Abu-Jamal, Manchin, who also met with Adegbile before voting, said, “I’m not judging anybody about anything.”
Senate Democratic leaders defended their decision to push for the vote and suggested Republicans blocked Adegbile because he’s a voting rights expert who would have pushed those issues in office.
“Republicans have done everything they can for a number of years now trying to stop people from voting,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid charged.
But in the end, Reid said, this nomination came down to “a dispute between the police and the civil rights community.”