The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Friday demanded for the second time that the Justice Department explain its dismissal of charges against members of the New Black Panther Party who disrupted a Philadelphia polling place during the November elections, saying a previous response was “largely non-responsive” and “paints the department in a poor light.”
In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the commission said it is “answerable” to the president, Congress and the public to ensure that civil rights laws are enforced and that it had the authority to subpoena witnesses and documents to guarantee laws are being followed by federal agencies, including the Justice Department.
It also accused the department of failing to properly respond to members of Congress who have asked about the decision to dismiss the New Black Panther Party complaint, saying its responses to congressional inquiries also were “non-responsive” and contained “factual errors and … questionable legal claims.”
The commission’s five-page letter also says the Justice Department’s undated response, which was received June 20, did not answer the commission’s most basic questions, “which impairs our duty to investigate potential voting deprivations and federal enforcement policies.”
“We trust that your response to this letter will provide us with the information necessary to make significant progress in our investigation,” the letter says.
Todd F. Gaziano, an independent member of the commission, said the Justice Department’s response did not answer questions posed by the panel, adding that there were no examples, as requested, of any similar cases or any explanation of the legal standards used in judging the case.
“We are entitled to a complete and satisfactory explanation on how this decision was made,” he said.
Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department has “an ongoing obligation to be sure that the claims it makes are supported by the facts and the law.” After a “thorough review of the allegations and the evidence,” she said top career Civil Rights Division lawyers determined the facts and the law did not support pursuing the claims against the New Black Panther Party members.
“We are committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting anyone exercising his or her right to vote,” she said.
According to the commission, the Justice Department’s June 20 response, written by Portia Roberson, director of the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison, provided none of the facts the commission needed to determine whether the New Black Panther Party voter-intimidation case was handled “consistently with others the department has investigated.”
The commission says the Roberson letter provided no response as to whether there were any similar cases in which the department’s Civil Rights Division had dismissed charges against a defendant accused of voter intimidation and that Ms. Roberson did not respond to its request for the department’s evidentiary and legal standards for dismissing such charges.
“If the department has no such standards, we would like to know that,” the letter says.
The letters also says Ms. Roberson asserted that “the facts and law did not support pursuing” the complaint but provided “no factual or legal explanation why that is so.”
The commission has asked Mr. Holder to “personally direct” the response or to appoint another senior member of the department to do so, a person who was not involved in the decision to either bring or to dismiss the New Black Panther Party complaint.
The letter was approved by Commission Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds, Vice Chairman Abigail Thernstrom and members Peter N. Kirsanow and Ashley L. Taylor Jr., all Republicans, and two independents, Mr. Gaziano and Gail Heriot. Democrats Arlan D. Melendez and Michael Yaki abstained.
In January, Justice 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 New Black Panther 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.
In April, a federal judge had ordered default judgments against the Panthers after they refused to respond to the charges or appear in court. The Justice Department was in the final stages of seeking sanctions when a delay in the proceedings was ordered by Loretta King, who was serving as a political appointee as the acting assistant attorney general.
That ruling was issued after she met with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the department’s No. 3 political appointee, who approved the decision to dismiss the complaint, according to interviews with department officials who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
In its letter, the commission questions whether political appointees should have been involved in the case. It says, “That Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, a political appointee, reportedly approved the dismissal of the suit against a Democratic poll worker raises a host of questions.”
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 and the certified poll watcher.
The New Black Panther Party has not returned e-mails for comment and the voice mail at its Washington headquarters was full.