Sunday, July 12, 2009

On Election Day 2008, members of the New Black Panther Party went to great lengths to intimidate voters at a polling place in Philadelphia.

Two people arrived in military-style uniforms; one carried a night stick, and each proceeded to threaten voters verbally, reportedly blocking the doorway to a polling location. Leaders of the New Black Panther Party said they could not allow “some racists and other angry whites, who are upset over an impending Barack Obama presidential victory, to intimidate blacks at the polls.” However, their vigilante tactics — supposedly to protect some voters by intimidating others — were a clear violation of the law.

The Justice Department filed a complaint against the New Black Panther Party and two of its members for violating the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits any “attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce” any voter and those aiding voters.

According to the complaint, members of the party made “racial threats and racial insults” and “menacing and intimidating gestures, statements, and movements directed at individuals who were present to aid voters.” The Justice Department won the case because the defendants ignored the government’s complaint, refusing even to show up in court to oppose the allegations.

However, rather than seek a default judgment to ensure that members of the New Black Panther Party could not participate in future voter intimidation tactics, the Justice Department abruptly moved to dismiss the case.

This sudden reversal had nothing to do with the facts of the case — the Justice Department already had won. In a Chicago-style political move, Mr. Obama decided to give a free pass to his political allies who had broken the law on Election Day 2008.

In an effort to be fair, before I came to the conclusion that Obama appointees at the Justice Department had interfered politically in this case, I asked the assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division to explain the department’s actions. The Justice Department officials not only refused to deny the allegations of political interference, they refused to respond at all. This from the self-proclaimed “most transparent” administration in American history.

Some administration officials claim the case was dropped for reasons similar to those that led to the department’s retreat in the public corruption case against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican.

Unfortunately, this assertion ignores the differences between the cases. The prosecutors in the case against Mr. Stevens were reprimanded on numerous occasions for prosecutorial misconduct. No such allegations were ever made against the attorneys handling the New Black Panther Party claims. To the contrary, there is clear evidence — including video — documenting the behavior of the defendants on Election Day.

If Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. truly believes the Justice Department had legitimate reasons to dismiss the case against the New Black Panther Party, why not make those reasons public? Without an explanation, the only logical conclusion is that this was political payback to a group that helped elect Mr. Obama even though its help crossed legal lines.

Voter intimidation threatens the very core of democracy. Americans were outraged when we saw the recent interference in Iran’s elections. And yet our own Justice Department gave a free pass to people who sought to silence the voices of their opposition. There cannot be true justice if those responsible for ensuring justice rely on a political compass rather than facts and evidence.

If the Obama administration will not be forthright about the real reason behind the dismissal of this case, the inspector general should take action and open an investigation. Until then, the integrity of the Justice Department and our election process will remain in question.

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas is the leading Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

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