EXCLUSIVE: Career lawyers overruled on voting case

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Justice Department political appointees overruled career lawyers and ended a civil complaint accusing three members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense of wielding a nightstick and intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place last Election Day, according to documents and interviews.

The incident - which gained national attention when it was captured on videotape and distributed on YouTube - had prompted the government to sue the men, saying they violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by scaring would-be voters with the weapon, racial slurs and military-style uniforms.

Career lawyers pursued the case for months, including obtaining an affidavit from a prominent 1960s civil rights activist who witnessed the confrontation and described it as “the most blatant form of voter intimidation” that he had seen, even during the voting rights crisis in Mississippi a half-century ago.

The lawyers also had ascertained that one of the three men had gained access to the polling place by securing a credential as a Democratic poll watcher, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Times.

The career Justice lawyers were on the verge of securing sanctions against the men earlier this month when their superiors ordered them to reverse course, according to interviews and documents. The court had already entered a default judgment against the men on April 20.

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A Justice Department spokesman on Thursday confirmed that the agency had dropped the case, dismissing two of the men from the lawsuit with no penalty and winning an order against the third man that simply prohibits him from bringing a weapon to a polling place in future elections.

The department was “successful in obtaining an injunction that prohibits the defendant who brandished a weapon outside a Philadelphia polling place from doing so again,” spokesman Alejandro Miyar said. “Claims were dismissed against the other defendants based on a careful assessment of the facts and the law.”

Mr. Miyar declined to elaborate about any internal dispute between career and political officials, saying only that the department is “committed to the vigorous prosecution of those who intimidate, threaten or coerce anyone exercising his or her sacred right to vote.”

Court records reviewed by The Times show that career Justice lawyers were seeking a default judgment and penalties against the three men as recently as May 5, before abruptly ending their pursuit 10 days later.

People directly familiar with the case, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, said career lawyers in two separate Justice offices had recommended proceeding to default judgment before political superiors overruled them.

Tensions between career lawyers and political appointees inside the Justice Department have been a sensitive matter since allegations surfaced during the Bush administration that higher-ups had ignored or reversed staff lawyers and that some U.S. attorneys had been removed or selected for political reasons.

During his January confirmation hearings, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that during his lengthy Justice Department tenure, the career lawyers were “my teachers, my colleagues and my friends” and described them as the “backbone” of the department.

“If I am confirmed as attorney general, I will listen to them, respect them and make them proud of the vital goals we will pursue together,” he said.

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