EDITORIAL: Black Ops on Black Panther case

Justice Department goes rogue on civil rights abuses

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The Justice Department still hasn’t explained its decision to drop most of its voter-intimidation case against violent Black Panthers 18 months ago. If the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights finally adopts its report on the controversy, the great lengths Justice officials have taken to avoid scrutiny will be exposed.

As the draft comes up for a vote on Friday, new findings from a Judicial Watch lawsuit will further eviscerate the lame excuses Justice has offered. Even in heavily redacted form, department e-mails unearthed last week show top political appointees not just vaguely reviewing and approving the decision to drop most of the case, but actually directing and editing court filings.

This contradicts the department’s official story that the decisions were made by career attorneys who merely secured pro-forma approval from political superiors. The political interference alleged by Judicial Watch is part of a larger pattern. Much of the information included in the Civil Rights Commission draft - some of it first unearthed by The Washington Times - details evidence of a broader politicization of the Justice Department.

According to the commission draft, which has been circulating for weeks, “The involvement of senior [Justice] officials by itself would not be unusual, but the Department’s repeated attempts to obscure the nature of their involvement and other refusals to cooperate raise questions about what the Department is trying to hide.” The report says Justice has refused the basic step of providing the commission with original witness statements regarding the Black Panther incident.

The report also recounts the department’s evolving excuses for deep-sixing the case. At first, senior officials claimed First Amendment concerns were at play. They weren’t. Then Justice claimed Black Panther Jerry Jackson had a right to be at the polling place because he lived there. He didn’t live there. Next came dissembling about Jackson being a registered poll watcher, which, of course, doesn’t excuse vulgar threats and voter intimidation. Finally, it was claimed that Jackson shouldn’t be charged because local police allowed him to stay on-site - which is immaterial. As the commission report notes, “local police officers are not charged with enforcement of the federal Voting Rights Act,” nor are they trained to determine what constitutes a violation.

The commission’s report outlines other areas of concern. This includes an alleged refusal to enforce some civil rights laws as well as procedural misconduct, such as repeated claims of extraordinary privileges used to block the commission from relevant documents and testimony. Thus far, for example, Justice has gotten away with hiding information on the vague grounds that it “otherwise would undermine its ability to carry out its mission.” The whole mess is an offense against the concept of open government.

Under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Justice Department acts as a law unto itself, defining its own mission without regard to oversight by any other branch of government. That’s beyond all bounds in a nation of laws.

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