Justice Department attorneys did not commit professional misconduct or exercise poor judgment in their handling of a voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party by dismissing three defendants in the case, says the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).
In a letter this week, the OPR said its seven-month inquiry “found no evidence” that the decision to dismiss the case against the New Black Panther Party and two of its members was “predicated on political considerations.”
The office said the Justice attorneys “acted appropriately in the exercise of their supervisory duties” and added that the ruling came after a top department official had appropriately consulted with and notified career lawyers, supervisors and the department’s leadership.
“We found no evidence of improper political interference or influence from within or outside the department in connection with the decision in this case,” the OPR wrote.
In its letter to Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who requested the investigation, the OPR said the decision to dismiss three of the defendants and to see a more narrowly tailored injunctive relief was “predicated on a good-faith assessment of the law and the facts of the case and had a reasonable basis.”
“We found no evidence that political considerations were a motivating factor in reaching the decision,” the OPR said. “We found no evidence to support allegations (which were raised during the course of our investigation) that the decision makers, either in bringing or dismissing the claims, were influenced by the race of the defendants or any considerations other than an assessment of the evidence and the applicable law.”
The OPR said the attorneys involved in the case made “good-faith, reasonable assessments of the facts and the law.”
In January 2009, the Voting Rights Section at Justice filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania accusing the New Black Panther Party and two of its members of intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place during the November 2008 general election with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick. A third party member was accused of directing and endorsing their behavior.
The incident was captured on video and gained national attention after it was shown on YouTube and elsewhere.
The charges were dismissed against the party; its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz; and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member. Justice later sought an injunction against Minister King Samir Shabazz, who carried the nightstick, barring him from displaying weapons at polling places until 2012.
Christopher Coates, the veteran Justice Department voting-section chief who recommended going forward on the civil complaint, was removed from his post and transferred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina.
Mr. Coates told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in September that a “hostile atmosphere” existed within the Civil Rights Division against race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which became clear to him while pursuing a 2005 Mississippi case in which white voters were the victims of intimidation.
He said the election of President Obama allowed those most opposed to “race-neutral enforcement” to move into leadership positions at the department. One of those officials, then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, ordered the dismissal of the New Black Panther case.
J. Christian Adams, lead attorney in the case, resigned, citing what he called concerns about Justice’s refusal to prosecute the New Black Panther Party case after a federal judge in Philadelphia had ruled in favor of the government.
He accused Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. of dropping the charges for racially motivated reasons, saying he and other Justice Department lawyers were ordered to dismiss it.
Mr. Adams told the Civil Rights Commission in July that Justice officials had instructed its attorneys to ignore cases that involved black defendants and white victims, adding that the department showed “hostility” toward those cases.