Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Obama administration’s dismissal last month of a voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panthers involved a double standard of astonishing audacity. This double standard imperils the fundamental American privilege of voting.

Steven H. Rosenbaum was a key Justice Department official involved in approving the dismissal of the case against the Black Panthers. He was far more gung-ho in prosecuting a voter-intimidation case from a 1990 complaint based not on physical threats but on misleading postcards.

The world surely has turned upside down if postcards are punished as intimidation but the Black Panthers’ implied physical threats are not.

This Panther case arose on Election Day in November when three members of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense - wearing quasi-paramilitary garb, one armed with a nightstick - stood menacingly outside a Philadelphia polling booth while hurling racial epithets at white voters. Bartle Bull, a liberal civil rights activist in the 1960s, testified that it was “the most blatant form of voter discrimination I have encountered in my life.”

Yet, after a judge already had offered to impose a default judgment against the three Panthers and against the party itself, the Obama Justice Department suddenly and mysteriously dropped the case that effectively had been won against the party and two of the three members - including one who was a credentialed poll watcher for the Democratic Party. The third individual defendant, King Samir Shabazz, received a mild slap on the wrist.

As acting deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, Mr. Rosenbaum helped approve the dismissal.

In 1992, as chief of the voting section of the Civil Rights Division, Mr. Rosenbaum concluded a two-year battle to impose sanctions against the North Carolina Republican Party and several of its operatives for voter intimidation. The violation was mailing misleading postcards to black voters saying they would be ineligible to vote if they had recently moved from one precinct to another.

In both the 1990 case and this one, the Justice Department cited Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act as the basis of its complaint. That provision makes it illegal to “intimidate, threaten or coerce … any person for voting or attempting to vote.” The Justice Department noted in its filings that such violations are particularly obvious if they involve physical threats or if they are racially motivated.

The North Carolina party was guilty of racially motivated actions designed to dissuade some citizens from voting. That’s not the issue here. By way of comparison, though, it is impossible to argue with a straight face that a postcard is as intimidating as were the Black Panthers caught on videotape in November.

Congress should ask Mr. Rosenbaum how his standards in the two cases could possibly be so at odds. Congressmen should ask him if somebody higher in Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s hierarchy ordered the Black Panther case to be dismissed. Does Mr. Holder think that intimidation is acceptable if it is aimed at white voters and carried out by official Democratic poll watchers?

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