The Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday rejected by a 15-14 vote a resolution of inquiry that would have forced the Justice Department to tell Congress why it dismissed a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party who disrupted a Philadelphia polling place in the November 2008 election.
The party-line vote had been sought by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, who, along with Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said they have been unable to get information from the department on the complaint’s dismissal.
“I am deeply disappointed that the Judiciary Committee defeated my resolution of inquiry on a party-line vote. There has been no oversight, no accountability and certainly no transparency with regard to this attorney general and this Department of Justice,” Mr. Wolf said.
“Where is the ‘unprecedented transparency’ that this administration promised? Where is the honesty and openness that the majority party pledged? The American people deserve better,” he said.
The 15 Democrats, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, sent the resolution to the House floor with an adverse recommendation, voting it “unfavorably” out of committee. They described the Philadelphia polling disruption as an “isolated incident” that received sufficient punishment when the New Black Panther Party member who carried a nightstick was barred from carrying weapons at polling places in the future.
Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, described the dismissal of the complaint as “a denial of justice” and Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said the resolution was an attempt to hold the Justice Department accountable to Congress.
Mr. Wolf said that after ignoring seven letters over seven months seeking information on the case and failing to comply with subpoenas from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he decided to seek the resolution. He said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. continues to “thwart all efforts to compel an explanation for the dismissal.”
Mr. Conyers disagreed, saying the Justice Department had been “quite cooperative” in providing information to Congress. He said efforts by the department to keep the committee informed were “fairly numerous.” The Justice Department did respond to several of the requests for information, although Mr. Wolf and others have described them as nonresponsive.
Mr. Wolf, ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies that funds the Justice Department, also said that while the Justice Department is claiming broad privileges to avoid disclosing any new information regarding the case, many legal scholars have challenged the department’s assertions of privilege. He said the committee’s failure to approve his resolution had set a “troubling precedent.”
“Is it going to continue to blindly defer to all unsubstantiated claims of privilege from the department?” he asked. “The Justice Department has gone as far as to claim privilege and redact seven pages of a letter I sent to the attorney general and released publicly on July 31, 2009.
“I sincerely question the judgment of the Civil Rights Division leadership — both in its dismissal of this case and its stonewalling of this Congress and the Commission on Civil Rights,” he said.
Mr. Wolf argued that the complaint was “inexplicably dismissed” earlier this year over the objections of the career attorneys overseeing the case as well as the departments own appeal office. He said he regretted resorting to an oversight resolution, but “Congress and the American people have a right to know why this case was not prosecuted.”
In his resolution, first filed on Dec. 16, Mr. Wolf asked that Mr. Holder be directed to transmit to the House all information in his possession relating to the decision by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to dismiss the complaint.
That would have included copies of documents, memos and correspondence involving the New Black Panther Party and the Justice Department; any communications by the department regarding the case, both in and outside the agency; and any evidence regarding the complaint’s dismissal.
Mr. Wolf said he took oversight of the department “very seriously” and was a strong supporter of voting rights protections.