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Mr. Rosenbaum’s previous history on voting rights included energetically carrying a case stemming from a 1990 incident in which the Republican Party of North Carolina mailed misleading postcards to black voters saying they would be ineligible to vote if they had moved recently from one precinct to another. That incident puts him in the odd position of arguing that postcards are “intimidating” but a physical presence at a polling place - while wearing paramilitary garb - is not.

Also, as noted above, Mr. Perrelli, the associate attorney general, was consulted and ultimately approved the decision to be lenient on the Black Panthers, according to multiple officials.

Political ties to the Obama White House and the Democratic Party

The New Black Panther Party has been identified as a “hate group” even by left-wing organizations and also has been denounced by the remnants of the original Black Panther Party. Yet at one point in 2008, the official Obama campaign Web site proudly featured a Web page highlighting the New Black Panther Party endorsement. One of the Black Panthers originally charged in the voter-intimidation case, Mr. Jackson, was an elected member of Philadelphia’s 14th Ward Democratic Committee and was credentialed to be an official Democratic Party poll watcher. The case against him was dropped just four days before municipal elections in Philadelphia - just in time for him again to serve as an official Democratic poll watcher.

Mr. Rosenbaum has a history of working with President Obama. In 1995, he helped lead the Justice Department in intervening on behalf of the now-controversial ACORN community-agitating group in a voting-rights case in Illinois. One of ACORN’s lead attorneys in that case was Mr. Obama. A federal appeals court ruled strongly against the Obama-Rosenbaum position, calling it “untenable.”

Mr. Perrelli raised more than $500,000 for Mr. Obama’s race for president. His ties to the president go back even further than Mr. Rosenbaum’s: He served as managing editor at the Harvard Law Review while Mr. Obama was the publication’s president.

Ms. King, according to Mr. Spak-ovsky, “talked about resigning when I was [at the Justice Department] to run as a Democratic candidate in Maryland and is as political as any political appointee at Justice.”

Direct policy implications

In his farewell remarks to his Civil Rights Division colleagues before being exiled to a South Carolina office (and after being ordered by superiors not to comply with a subpoena from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights), Mr. Coates reportedly said the division’s focus under Mr. Obama is at risk of “enforc[ing] the Voting Rights Act in a racially biased fashion and turn[ing] a blind eye whenever incidents arise that indicate that minority persons have acted improperly in voting matters.” Members of the Civil Rights Commission likewise have indicated that they are worried about a potentially inequitable administration of justice - a concern that appears to undergird its formal investigation into the matter.

Indirect policy implications

The Justice Department has asserted seven different supposed grounds for legal “privileges” against cooperating with the commission. By refusing to comply with the commission’s subpoenas and by stonewalling other, repeated inquiries from members of Congress and the press, the Justice Department steps closer to major - even constitutional - confrontations on multiple fronts. These range from issues of executive branch privileges to issues of separation of powers and to more general “open government” laws and policy choices.