Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Friday there was "insufficient evidence" to bring a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party who disrupted a Philadelphia polling place in the 2008 general elections.
Mr. Perez, the only Justice Department official to testify publicly before the commission about the case, said that without sufficient proof that party members or the organization's leader, Malik Zulu Shabazz, directed or controlled unlawful activities at the poll or made speeches to incite or produce lawless action, the complaint "would have likely failed" in court.
"Based on the totality of the evidence and the relevant legal precedent, the acting assistant attorney general made a judgment about how to proceed, choosing to seek an injunction against the only defendant who brought a weapon to the Philadelphia polling place on Election Day and to voluntarily dismiss the other three defendants," he said.
Mr. Perez said a decision to proceed with claims against one of the New Black Panthers, Minister King Samir Shabazz, and to dismiss the claims against the three others was "based on the merits and reflects the kind of good faith, case-based assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of claims that the department makes every day.
"We assure you that the department is committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of both the civil and criminal provisions of federal law that prohibits voter intimidation," he said. "We continue to work with voters, communities and local law enforcement to ensure that every American can vote free from intimidation, coercion or threats."
The commission began an investigation into the New Black Panther Party case after the civil complaint was dismissed, trying to determine if political interference led to the dismissal. Several commission members also have been angry over what they have called the Justice Department's refusal to turn over documents or to make witnesses available to be interviewed.
The Justice Department steadfastly has maintained that it followed the law and evidence in the case and was not influenced by partisan politics.
Republican Commissioner Todd Gaziano asked whether an independent counsel should be named to investigate the handling of the complaint, a request that does not appear to have much support. Last month, in its first public comments about the case, the New Black Panther Party said it did not break any laws and praised a decision by the Justice Department to dismiss the complaint.
A written statement by the party conceded that one member -- Minister King Samir Shabazz -- should not have brought a nightstick to a Philadelphia polling place, but described it as "an honest error."
"What these Republican witch hunters repeatedly fail to mention is that the individual member involved in the nightstick incident was, in fact, legally penalized," said the statement from Minister Hashim Nzinga, chief of staff to party leader Mr. Zulu Shabazz.
Mr. Samir Shabazz, head of the Philadelphia chapter, and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member, were videotaped outside a polling place wearing black military-style uniforms, which included combat boots and black berets. Mr. Samir Shabazz also brandished a nightstick.
Mr. Zulu Shabazz, a lawyer and D.C. resident, also was named in the complaint, accused of directing and endorsing their behavior. The party itself also was included as a defendant.
None of the defendants answered the charges or made any court appearances, and the Justice Department won the case by default. But the department ultimately chose to drop the allegations against Mr. Jackson, Mr. Zulu Shabazz and the party as a whole. The department did obtain an injunction against Mr. Samir Shabazz prohibiting him from brandishing a weapon outside a polling place until 2012.
Mr. Perez said that while none of the New Black Panther Party members responded to the complaint, that did not absolve the Justice Department of its "legal and ethical obligations to ensure that any relief sought was consistent with the law and supported by the evidence.
"The entry of a default judgment is not automatic, and the Pennsylvania Bar Rules impart a clear duty of candor and honesty in any legal proceeding In discharging its obligations in that regard, the department considered not only the allegations in the complaint, but also the evidence collected by the department both before and after the filing of the complaint."