The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, frustrated by the Justice Department’s failure to explain the dismissal of charges against New Black Panther Party members who disrupted a Philadelphia polling place during last year’s elections, has subpoenaed the department demanding records showing how the case was handled.
David P. Blackwood, the commission’s general counsel, said Tuesday in a letter to the Justice Department that efforts since June to obtain an explanation had proceeded “without any success” and the “dearth of cooperation” had prompted the commission to issue subpoenas.
“We are both mindful of the sensitivity of the subject matter involved and aware that, in response to similar requests, the department has raised various concerns and matters of privilege,” Mr. Blackwood said. “While such considerations carry weight, cooperation with commission investigations is a mandatory statutory obligation.
“Moreover, due to the unique investigative role of the commission - akin to that of a congressional committee - disclosure to the commission of the information sought is both proper and required,” he added.
The commission has asked the department why a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) and three of its members was dismissed after a federal judge in Philadelphia ordered default judgments in the case. The NBPP refused to respond to the charges or appear in court.
The department’s Voting Rights Section was in the final stages of seeking the judgments when Loretta King, who was serving as acting assistant attorney general, ordered a delay.
She issued the delay after meeting with Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli, the department’s No. 3 political appointee, who approved the dismissal, according to interviews with department officials who sought anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Tuesday that the department was reviewing the commission’s letter. She said that the Civil Division at the department reviews “these types of requests in accordance with longstanding guidelines governing the disclosure of internal department information.”
In January, the Justice Department filed a civil complaint in Philadelphia against the NBPP after two of its members in black berets, black combat boots, black shirts and black jackets purportedly intimidated voters with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick. A third party member was accused of managing, directing and endorsing their behavior. The incident was captured on videotape.
Four months later, the Justice Department dropped the charges because, it said, “the facts and the law did not support pursuing” them.
In August, Mary Patrice Brown, acting counsel of the department’s office of professional responsibility, announced that it had “initiated an inquiry into the matter.” The office investigates suspected misconduct by department lawyers.
Mr. Blackwood, in his letter, said the commission was concerned when it learned that the referral to the office of professional responsibility had raised questions about suspicions of misconduct.
Among the documents being sought are witness statements, copies of any investigation conducted by the Justice Department, reports of suspected voting intimidation, all documents that influenced the decision to drop three of the defendants as parties to the case, and documents regarding communications by Mrs. King, Mr. Perrelli and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. relating to the case.
Mr. Blackwood also said the commission wanted the names of all Justice Department personnel who worked on the case, including those who interviewed witnesses in Philadelphia, others who exercised decision-making authority and all those in the appellate section who reviewed the litigation.
The civil complaint accused two NBPP members - Minister King Samir Shabazz, head of the Philadelphia chapter, and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member - of intimidating voters at the polling place. A third party member, Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz, a lawyer and D.C. resident, was accused of directing and endorsing their behavior.
NBPP officials and members have not been available for comment. The department obtained an injunction against Mr. Samir Shabazz that prohibits him from brandishing a weapon outside a polling place through Nov. 15, 2012.