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EDITORIAL: Congress is derelict on Black Panther case

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In the matter of a voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party, it's long past time for Democrats on the House and Senate Judiciary committees to start protecting the institutional powers of Congress and of independent agencies.

Eleven months ago, the Justice Department suddenly and surprisingly dropped its case against three defendants and accepted a weak injunction against a fourth, stemming from the incident in Philadelphia on Election Day 2008 in which Black Panthers disrupted a neighborhood polling place. Since then, the Justice Department has stonewalled multiple requests for information from news organizations, a number of congressmen and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Despite a legal requirement that all federal agencies must comply with subpoenas issued by the Civil Rights Commission, the Justice Department has objected to "each and every" question and document request submitted via subpoena. The department also refused to let its line attorneys be interviewed by the commission and even transferred one of the key attorneys to South Carolina to put him out of the commission's subpoena jurisdiction.

The Civil Rights Commission is "an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding agency" with the duty to investigate and report on instances in which it appears that citizens' voting rights have been abridged because of race, sex, ethnicity or disability. Technically an executive-branch agency, the commission features four of eight commissioners who are appointed directly by leaders of Congress. Congress long has recognized that the commission's independence and ability to issue reports to Congress makes the commission an invaluable safeguard for Congress against executive malfeasance.

Congress therefore should take heed of an April 1 letter that commission Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds wrote to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. demanding his "direct response" to the commission's repeated requests for more information. Calling the department's lack of cooperation a "dangerous precedent," Mr. Reynolds blasted the department's original decision to dismiss the case. The Justice Department "appears to have provided hate groups of every ilk a precedent that will assist them in avoiding liability for voter intimidation," he said.

An even lengthier letter two days earlier, this one from commission General Counsel David P. Blackwood to Joseph H. Hunt of the Justice Department's Civil Division, requested that the department appoint a special counsel on the matter because the department had demonstrated "an inherent conflict of interest." So far, Mr. Blackwood wrote, "the department's existing discovery responses fall short of an even minimum level of cooperation."

Congress needn't look far to understand that the department's unseemly obstruction of the commission's work is an indicator of a more generalized secrecy that will hamstring Congress' own, justifiable oversight efforts. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, and Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, have been similarly rebuffed on the same Black Panther issue on multiple occasions. If Congress lets the Justice Department get away with such obstinacy, it will be setting a worrisome precedent.

A Congress that won't keep the Justice Department honest is a Congress that has been emasculated. And a Justice Department accountable to no outside agency or branch of government is a department whose powers could easily become sinister.

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