The Justice Department told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to drop dead yesterday. The growing controversy is over a voter-intimidation case involving the radical New Black Panther Party and why Justice is carrying water for the villains. The department’s intransigence should frighten Congress because Justice is asserting broad privileges that undermine congressional authority to oversee government’s executive branch.
That’s why the timing is propitious today for the House Judiciary Committee to consider, and approve, a resolution of inquiry introduced by Rep. Frank Wolf, Virginia Republican. The Wolf resolution would direct Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to “transmit to the House of Representatives, not later than 14 days after the date of adoption of this resolution, copies of any document, memo or correspondence of the Department of Justice with regard to United States v. New Black Panther Party.”
Democrats tempted to kill this resolution today on a party-line vote should understand that they would be setting a precedent with ramifications far beyond this case. The constitutional balance of powers would be fundamentally shifted away from Congress to an unaccountable executive, and future corruption easily could go unchecked.
The Commission on Civil Rights, acting according to explicit statutory authority to subpoena executive departments, demanded that Justice answer 49 detailed questions, with accompanying document requests. In yesterday’s response, the department wrote that on the basis of seven distinct claimed “privileges,” it objects “to each and every Interrogatory and Document Request.” The cover letter to the commission from Justice official Joseph H. Hunt asserts a broader need to “protect against disclosures that would … undermine its ability to carry out its mission.”
Not even President Nixon at the nadir of Watergate asserted such a broad privilege against outside review. Sustaining such a privilege would let an executive agency assert that anything it self-defines as its “mission” would be immune from scrutiny. That way lies tyranny.
The Washington Times asked Michael Carvin, deputy assistant attorney general for both the Civil Rights Division and the Office of Legal Counsel under President Reagan, to review the Department of Justice’s privilege assertions. His response was scathing.
“They are relying on privileges that the Office of Legal Counsel says do not exist,” Mr. Carvin asserted. “There is no privilege, for instance, saying that the Justice Department will not identify personnel working on the case. … Generally, a number of these privileges [are ones] I’ve literally never heard of.”
Mr. Carvin specifically noted, contrary to Justice claims, “Normally there is no general attorney-client privilege unless you are dealing with the president. So a claim would have to come under the ‘work product’ or ‘deliberative process’ exemption. But ‘work product’ is very narrow, and the deliberative-process privilege is moot … once the case closes. This is especially true when the [request for the information] does not involve litigants but instead an agency with statutory responsibilities concerning civil rights.”
The Justice Department is out of control. If this power grab doesn’t trigger a congressional investigation, Congress is admitting it is no more than a body of lapdogs, fetching slippers for their executive masters.