New Developments in New Black Panther Party Voter Intimidation Case

For nearly a year and a half, I have been urging the Department of Justice to come clean about the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of the U.S. v. New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case.

This important case was dismissed over the unanimous objection of the four career attorneys on the trial team and career officials in the department’s appellate office, including its chief. I continue to be troubled by the inexcusable conduct of the DOJ as well as the obstruction and stonewalling by Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and other political appointees at the department.

The explosive testimony of Christopher Coates before the Civil Rights Commission on September 24 has amply confirmed my concerns. A former ACLU attorney who came into the Justice Department under President Clinton, Coates was appointed chief of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division in 2008.

According to his sworn testimony, the civil rights attorneys at Justice possess a “deep-seated opposition” toward “equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act”—opposition that has only grown under the Obama Administration—and that the Black Panther case was abandoned following “pressure” by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. His charges echo the accusations of former Justice official, J. Christian Adams, who appeared before the commission in July.

Equally disturbing, Coates confirmed that he was told by his superiors not to testify, was stripped of much of his authority after he continued to demand equal protection for voters, and was eventually transferred from the Civil Rights Division to the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina.

The case was originally brought in January 2009 by career attorneys in the department’s Civil Rights Division against the New Black Panther Party which had deployed men in military-style outfits to a polling station in Philadelphia, Pa., on Election Day 2008. The incident was caught on videotape. Three of the party’s members, one of whom brandished a nightstick, were accused of harassing and intimidating voters. One of the witnesses, Bartle Bull, a veteran civil rights activist who served as Bobby Kennedy’s New York campaign manager in 1968, has publicly called this “the most blatant form of voter intimidation” he has ever seen.

The civil case was proceeding towards a default judgment in favor of the department until it was suddenly withdrawn in May 2009. Sources within the department reported that Associate Atty. Gen. Thomas Perrelli, a senior political appointee, in conjunction with acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, Loretta King, and her deputy, Steve Rosenbaum, overruled the career attorneys in the voting section.

Over the past year and a half, I have repeatedly called on the department to furnish documents relating to the dismissal of this case to the Congress and to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has done a valiant job of trying to investigate the matter. The department continued to obstruct by refusing to turn over relevant documents or make the department officials responsible for the dismissal available to testify.

In response to a lawsuit from a federal watchdog group, Judicial Watch, however, a judge ordered the department to release an index of e-mails relating to the dismissal of this case. Although the text of the e-mails has been withheld, the index and timeline of e-mails relating to the case demonstrate a much more significant and active role from the office of Associate Atty. Gen. Perelli than the department has publicly admitted. This development merits further investigation by the commission and the Congress.

I am pleased that the department’s inspector general, Glenn Fine, has now agreed to open an investigation into allegations of the unequal enforcement of federal voting rights laws under this administration, a decision I have repeatedly urged Mr. Fine to make since July 2009.Although he still refuses to investigate the specifics of the dismissal of the U.S. v. New Black Panther Party case, he has begun an inquiry into the Civil Rights Division’s alleged hostility to the race-neutral enforcement of civil rights laws.

As a long-time supporter of voting rights, I find it inexcusable that any law would be applied unequally and distressing that federal employees who seek to apply the law equally would be penalized under this administration. However, this seems to be the case.

In light of Coates’ stunning testimony, it is time for the department to reveal precisely what motivated the dismissal of this case. The attorney general should immediately direct his staff to turn over the information requested from the commission and members of Congress. He should also order those responsible for the dismissal to appear before the commission. I will continue to work to hold Atty. Gen. Holder and the department accountable for their equal enforcement of the law.