Thursday, April 22, 2010

On the first Tuesday in November, two uniformed men arrived at a voting place and took up positions by the entry doors. In the hours that followed, they harassed voters and election officials, hurled racial epithets and physically blocked persons of other races who sought to cast their votes for president of the United States. One of the men brandished a nightstick.

Bartle Bull, a civil rights movement veteran, was there. He says it was “the most blatant form of voter intimidation I have encountered in my life in political campaigns in many states, even going back to the work I did in Mississippi in the 1960s.” The crimes Mr. Bull witnessed that day were not committed in 1960s Mississippi, however. Those crimes took place in 2008 in Philadelphia.

It is regrettable that on the day when the United States elected its first black president, two thugs in Philadelphia perpetrated acts of race-based voter intimidation of the type that marred elections in segregation-era America. It also is inexcusable that President Obama’s Justice Department refuses to fulfill its duty and bring those racists to justice. Led by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., political appointees at the Obama Justice Department overruled career federal prosecutors and dropped voter-intimidation charges against the men.

The Justice Department obtained only a narrow, meaningless injunction against the man who taunted voters with the nightstick. He has been enjoined from brandishing a weapon within 100 feet of the entrance to any polling place (an act which was illegal to begin with) but only until November 2012.

Now the Justice Department is obstructing the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s investigation into this case. If two white men had donned police uniforms or white robes and terrorized a voting place, we can be certain the Justice Department would have brought the full force of the law to bear against the perpetrators and vindicated the right to vote - and properly so. In this case, however, the perpetrators were black, and the uniforms they wore bore the insignia of the New Black Panther Party, a black supremacist organization.

It should not matter. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act affirmed what the Declaration of Independence and Constitution intended: that all persons are created equal and are entitled to be protected equally by our government and laws. In the decades that have followed the passage of those two acts, I and millions of others have been the beneficiaries of those twin pillars of the civil rights movement.

But while the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed to end discrimination against blacks and other minorities, federal law and our Constitution protect all Americans equally, without regard to race, color, creed or religion.

The selective enforcement of our laws, and the appearance of selective enforcement, erode faith and confidence in the administration of our justice system and undermine the fundamental rule of law that is the very foundation of our society: All persons are equal before the law, and no person stands above it.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission has picked up this case and will be continuing its investigation of the Obama Justice Department’s handling of it at a hearing Friday. Thus far, the Justice Department has stonewalled the commission’s work - ignoring its requests for records and information and refusing to issue and enforce subpoenas on its behalf.

The commission will press forward with its investigation. And while the Obama Justice Department continues to demonstrate apparent disregard for the rule of law by obstructing the investigation, consider the new precedent its handling of this case sets: Racially motivated voter intimidation will be tolerated, even when it is captured on video and available for all to see on YouTube. If career prosecutors bring charges, high-level presidential appointees will intervene to ensure they are dropped. Apparently, only brandishing a weapon crosses the line.

The victims of the voting rights crimes that were committed in Philadelphia in 2008, and indeed all Americans, deserved to cast their ballots free from racial taunts, fear and intimidation. They deserved a Justice Department that enforces their voting rights instead of dropping the case. And they deserved better from the president who famously decreed, “There is not a black America and a white America. … There’s the United States of America.”

Mr. Obama, his attorney general and his Justice Department should reverse course, comply with the Civil Rights Commission’s requests for information and aid - not obstruct - its investigation. This is the only way to restore public faith and confidence in the impartial enforcement of our civil and voting rights laws, which has been seriously damaged by the Obama administration’s actions in this case.

Ashley L. Taylor Jr. is a lawyer in Virginia and Republican member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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