Civil rights panel faults Justice on Panthers
The Justice Department stonewalled efforts by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to investigate the dismissal of a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party, leaving open the question of whether the department is willing to pursue civil rights cases in which whites are “the perceived victims and minorities the alleged wrongdoers.”
In a 144-page report completed in November and released over the weekend, the commission said its lengthy investigation had uncovered “numerous specific examples of open hostility and opposition” within the department’s Civil Rights Division to pursuing cases in which whites were the victims.
The report, posted over the weekend on the commission’s website, said testimony and evidence obtained by the panel during its investigation included allegations that some Justice Department lawyers refused to work on cases involving white victims; that lawyers who worked on such cases were harassed and ostracized; and that some employees, including supervisory attorneys and political appointees, openly opposed race-neutral enforcement of voting rights laws.
Noting that two high-ranking lawyers in the department’s voting rights section testified that the hostility to race-neutral enforcement had influenced the decision-making process in the New Black Panther Party case, the report said the Justice Department’s failure to cooperate in the commission’s investigation left unanswered “these serious accusations.”
“While the department has issued general statements that it enforces the laws without regard to race, these assurances do not confirm, deny or explain the specific allegations of misconduct,” the report said. “Unfortunately, the department has thus far refused to address many of these specific claims or to provide the type of information that would allow the commission to properly review the decision making relating to the NBPP lawsuit.”
The Justice Department supervisor who recommended pursuing a voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party testified before the commission in September that the Civil Rights Division engaged in reverse racism, refusing to bring charges in voting cases unless the victim was a minority.
Christopher Coates, chief of the department’s voting rights section when the New Black Panther case was brought, said he felt compelled to testify despite orders from Justice not to appear because of what he deemed inaccurate statements made to the commission and elsewhere by department officials defending the handling of the case.
Department officials consistently said they were following the law and evidence when they dismissed the case after they had won it by default judgment, but Mr. Coates posited a different explanation.
“Based upon my own personal knowledge of the events surrounding the division’s actions in the Panther case and the atmosphere that existed and continues to exist in the division and in the voting section against fair enforcement of certain federal voting laws, I do not believe these representations to this commission accurately reflect what occurred in the Panther case and do not reflect the hostile atmosphere that existed within the division for a long time against race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act,” he said.
Mr. Coates said this hostility became clear to him while pursuing a 2005 Mississippi case in which white voters were the victims of intimidation. He said some department employees refused to work on the case, which, Mr. Coates said, also drew criticism from civil rights groups.
He said the presidential election victory of Barack Obama allowed those most opposed to “race-neutral enforcement” to move into leadership positions at the Civil Rights Division. One of those officials, then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, ordered the dismissal of the New Black Panther case.
J. Christian Adams, lead prosecutor in the New Black Panther case, testified in July that Justice Department officials instructed Civil Rights Division attorneys to ignore cases that involved black defendants and white victims. He said that “over and over and over again” the department showed “hostility” toward those cases.
A civil complaint in the case said two New Black Panther Party members in black berets, black combat boots, black shirts and black jackets with military insignias intimidated voters with racial slurs and a nightstick at a Philadelphia polling place during the November 2008 elections. A third party member was accused of directing their behavior. The incident was captured on videotape and gained national attention after it was shown on YouTube.
Mr. Coates has a long history in voting rights matters, working for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s and 1980s in Georgia, bringing cases on behalf of black voters. The recipient of two prestigious awards from the department since he began work there in 1996, he said the only two voting rights cases he ever brought at Justice with white victims were the Mississippi case and the Black Panther case.
The Justice Department balked at Mr. Coates‘ testimony and the commission’s investigation, noting that at least one Republican member of the commission, Abigail Thernstrom, said the inquiry was “thin on facts and evidence, and thick on rhetoric.”
Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler also drew attention to the context in which the allegations were made, saying the “politicization that occurred in the Civil Rights Division in the previous administration has been well documented by the inspector general, and it was a disgrace to the great history of the division.”
“We have reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division and ensured that it is actively enforcing the American people’s civil rights, and it is clear that not everyone supports that,” she said. “We are committed to enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and we are going to continue to do so without respect to politics.”
Mr. Coates currently works as an assistant U.S. attorney in South Carolina. He has said he took the assignment after it became clear that Justice officials were stripping him of his authority and he could not effectively do his job as chief of the voting rights section.
In its report, adopted in a 5-2 vote during a meeting in November but not made public, the commission said it became interested in the New Black Panther case because of the “notoriety of the incident and the unusual dismissal of uncontested claims.” It said the commission sent letters to Justice asking it to explain the basis for its actions, but the department was “largely unresponsive.”
“What was not anticipated was the extent of the department’s lack of cooperation,” the report said. “At various times, the department alleged it would provide no information because the matter was being reviewed by its Office of Professional Responsibility. At other times, the department raised a wide variety of legal privileges, many of which seemed to have no relevance to the current investigation.”
The report said much of the information Justice did provide either did not relate to the New Black Panther Party litigation, involved matters that were already public, or involved prior voter-intimidation lawsuits. The report said the information did not address the core of the commission’s inquiry as to why the lawsuit had been challenged internally.
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