EDITORIAL: Black Panther case expands

Even if the liberal media continue to ignore it, the Justice Department’s dismissal of a voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party is a full-blown scandal. Fortunately, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is pursuing justice even though the Department of Justice is not.

As reported in our news pages last Friday, the commission has sent a strongly worded letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., effectively threatening to subpoena witnesses and documents if Justice does not provide better, more complete answers about its decision to dismiss the cases. “We believe the Department’s defense of its actions thus far undermines respect for rule of law,” wrote the commission, “and raises other serious questions about the department’s law enforcement decisions.”

The case involves a nationally broadcast incident in which two Black Panthers in paramilitary garb, one of them wielding a nightstick, stood outside a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day in November. They were uttering racial epithets and otherwise discouraging voting. Career attorneys at the Justice Department won a default judgment against both Black Panthers, plus a national Panther leader and the party as a whole — but at the last minute, Obama appointees at Justice dismissed all the charges except one, and responded to that one with an extraordinarily mild injunction.

One explanation from Justice was that First Amendment (free speech) rights somehow mitigated against greater punishment of the Black Panthers. The commission responded, sensibly: “It is unclear what First Amendment issue would arise by enjoining the [New Black Panther Party] or other racial hate-groups from organizing its members again to carry any weapons (especially when dressed in paramilitary uniforms) at polling places and subject particular voters to racially-bigoted diatribes as they attempt to enter the polls.”

The commission also “noted the peculiar logic of the department’s court filing that the defendants’ failure to respond was the reason for its dismissal of the case against three defendants: Such an argument sends a perverse message to wrongdoers — that attempts at voter suppression will be tolerated so long as the persons who engage in them are careful not to appear in court to answer the government’s complaint.”

It really is a strange notion of justice to say that refusal to contest one’s guilt is reason to treat someone as innocent. The Commission on Civil Rights is correct to challenge it.

The commission also ought to continue asking if outside groups played an improper role in the case’s dismissal, or if there was untoward political interference from the White House or other Democratic Party sources.

But the commission may not stop even there. Letters can be ignored. Yearlong investigations can’t be. At last Friday’s meeting, Commissioner Todd Gaziano noted that the commission statutorily is required to issue an annual report on some aspect of federal civil rights enforcement. He proposed that the report for 2010 focus on the Justice Department’s handling of the Black Panther case. While the commission did not make a final decision on the matter, Mr. Gaziano’s proposal seemed to enjoy tentative majority support.

“The implications of the department’s actions in this case are potentially quite negative,” Mr. Gaziano told The Washington Times. “For this reason, the commission has a responsibility to investigate and report to Congress exactly what those implications are.”

We look forward to what the commission discovers about Justice constraining civil rights.

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