The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is demanding that the Justice Department explain why it recently dismissed a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party who disrupted a Philadelphia polling place during last year’s election, saying the department has offered only “weak justifications.”
Commission Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds, a former deputy associate attorney general under President George W. Bush, said he fears the legal precedent set by the department in its May decision to drop the case might encourage “other hate groups” to act similarly at polling locations in the future.
Mr. Reynolds also charged that other groups might not have been treated so leniently.
“If you swap out the New Black Panther Party in this case for neo-Nazi groups or the Ku Klux Klan, you likely would have had a different outcome,” he told The Washington Times in a telephone interview Monday.
“A single law, a single rule should be applied across the board. We are communicating with the department in hopes of gaining a better understanding of just what happened.”
The commission is an independent, fact-finding body charged with investigating civil rights complaints and making recommendations to the federal government about how to fix problems it uncovers.
In January, the Justice Department filed a civil complaint in Philadelphia against the New Black Panther Party after two of its members in black berets, black combat boots, black shirts and black jackets purportedly intimidated voters with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick. A third party member was accused of managing, directing and endorsing their behavior. The incident was captured on videotape.
Four months later, Justice officials dropped the charges because, they said, “the facts and the law did not support pursuing” them. They also said the party had disavowed what happened in Philadelphia, had suspended that city’s chapter and that one of the Panthers, Jerry Jackson, had been allowed by Philadelphia police to stay at the polling place as a certified Democratic poll watcher.
But before the charges were dropped, a federal judge in April ordered default judgments against the Panthers after the party members refused to respond to the charges or appear in court. The Justice Department was also in the final stages of seeking sanctions when a delay in the proceedings was ordered by Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general.
The ruling was issued after she met with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the department’s No. 3 political appointee, who approved the decision, according to interviews with department officials who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
Mr. Reynolds said the “consequences for an act should not be withdrawn.” He also described as “poor judgment” the decision to allow Mr. Jackson to escape charges, saying he would “understand a judge imposing an even harsher sentence on a poll watcher - a person who holds a public trust, has gone through training and is sworn to protect the election process.”
Named by Mr. Bush in 2004 to head the civil rights commission, Mr. Reynolds also served as assistant secretary of education for the Office for Civil Rights.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler, asked about Mr. Reynolds’ comments, said the department is “committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting anyone exercising his or her right to vote.”
The New Black Panther Party did not return an e-mail for comment and its voice mail at its Washington, D.C., headquarters was full.
In a June 16 letter, the commission told the Justice Department that its decision to drop the case had caused it “great confusion” since the New Black Panther Party’s members were “caught on video blocking access to the polls, and physically threatening and verbally harassing voters.”
The letter said that even after the case had been won, the department “took the unusual move of voluntarily dismissing the charges,” which, it wrote, sent “the wrong message entirely - that attempts at voter suppression will be tolerated and will not be vigorously prosecuted so long as the groups or individuals who engage in them fail to respond to the charges leveled against them.”
Named in the complaint were the New Black Panther Party; its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz, a lawyer and D.C. resident; Minister King Samir Shabazz, a Philadelphia resident and head of the Philadelphia NBPP chapter; and Mr. Jackson, also a resident of Philadelphia.