Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2009


Physicist Mohamed Diagne ´97 follows in the footsteps of retiring Professor Arlan Mantz. Photo by Ron Cowie

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Debo Adegbile ´91, left, argued to protect the Voting Rights Act at the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Debo Adegbile ´91 argued before the Supreme Court to preserve the Voting Rights Act

By Rachel Harrington

When the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the core provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in June, attorney Debo Adegbile ´91 was at the center of the case.

Adegbile, director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, defended the law before the court in a case that was one of the most closely watched of the year. The challenge was brought by a small Texas water district, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One.

The court ultimately ruled on a narrow statutory issue, declining to address the constitutionality of the law. Thus, the decision allowed both sides to claim victory.

The justices hinted that if pushed, they might find the law unconstitutional. The question of whether the election of Barack Obama proved that voting discrimination was a thing of the past was in the air throughout the case. But Adegbile, who also testified before Congress in support of the reauthorization of the Act in 2006, has some words of caution.

“The Voting Rights Act … is about equality for all citizens, not about opportunity for a single citizen or even a very talented citizen to reach the highest office,” he told interviewer Tavis Smiley on PBS a few days after the court handed down its decision.

“I think it would be a mistake to equate progress, which we acknowledge and embrace, with the idea that there are no more lingering problems.”

Adegbile, in his eighth year with the LDF, said after the case that discrimination today is more sophisticated — but no less painful — than in 1965.

“I´m hopeful that there will be a time in the future when we won´t need to have special protections for minority voters, but we haven´t come to the point yet,” he says.

It´s not surprising that Adegbile wound up with the LDF. As a child growing up in New York City, he studied the civil rights movement, which he describes as a “wonderful story of empowerment that speaks to the possibilities of our Constitution.”

“The LDF figured so prominently in that entire story,” he says. “They were known as the lawyers in the civil rights movement and became the reason that I wanted to become a lawyer.”

Longtime friend David Flemister ´87 introduced him to Connecticut College, and Adegbile was impressed by the soccer program, breadth of the academic offerings, and caliber of the faculty and students.

Adegbile studied with professors like William Frasure, who teaches government, and Arthur Ferrari, who teaches sociology. While Ferrari taught him about social inequality, Adegbile learned about public policy and the evolution of one´s right to counsel from Frasure.

Frasure remembers his student well — Adegbile took so many of his courses that friends joked he was a “Frasure major.”

Frasure says Adegbile was always up for an argument or debate, and he wasn´t surprised by Adegbile´s decision to become a lawyer — or by his success.

“Debo was bright, intelligent and very interested in politics and public affairs,” Frasure says. “He was terrific in every respect.”

Adegbile´s first experience working in law also happened while he was at the College. Before starting at the New York University School of Law, he secured an internship in New London´s public defender office through the Office of Volunteers for Community Service. His outstanding work in public service eventually earned him the Anna Lord Strauss Medal, presented each year to a Connecticut College senior.

“I had a great experience at Conn,” Adegbile says. “It opened a lot of doors, prepared me well for law school and gave me an opportunity to focus on public service.”

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