The news that Christopher Coates, former chief of the Justice Department’s Voting Section, is set to testify Friday before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is crucial to the panel’s investigation of allegations that the Obama administration has not enforced the nation’s civil rights laws in a race-neutral manner.
The testimony by Coates, a career government lawyer, is expected to shed light on whether DOJ:
• Discriminated against white voters in dismissing the voter-intimidation case against two members of the New Black Panther Party and the party itself that arose from incidents at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day 2008.
• Had a general policy or practice in its Civil Rights Division of not enforcing voting laws when the subjects of complaints were racial minorities.
• Had a racially motivated policy of not enforcing Section 8 of the National Voting Rights Act, which requires states to remove ineligible voters from the voter rolls.
When Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general who heads the Civil Rights Division, testified under oath before the independent Commission on Civil Rights in May, the Obama appointee repeatedly denied a racially motivated policy was in place. Perez also testified that he would investigate any statement to the contrary by anyone in his division.
However, Perez has refused to address the truth of subsequent sworn allegations alleging that Julie Fernandes, his deputy assistant attorney general in charge of voting issues, ordered and implemented such a race-based policy. In fact, Perez has publicly embraced her leadership.
In July, J. Christian Adams, a former career lawyer, testified under oath about Fernandes’ statements. Some veteran DOJ watchers say the absence of any Section 8 enforcement activity by the Civil Rights Division more than 20 months into the Obama administration, despite evidence of non-compliance by states throughout the country, lends credence to Adams’s charges.
Testimony by Coates that the Civil Rights Division under Perez purposely did not pursue full, equal, and race-neutral enforcement of federal voting laws could — and rightfully should — cause huge problems for this or any administration.
Adams testified on these matters after resigning from the Justice Department. He said Coates could confirm his testimony and specific accusations that Fernandes did not equally or fairly enforce voting rights laws.
The news that Coates indeed will testify follows revelations earlier this week by Judicial Watch. A privilege log obtained by Judicial Watch in a lawsuit against the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act shows that political appointees at Justice were much more involved in the decision to dismiss the Black Panthers case than they repeatedly claimed.
The log directly contradicts Perez’s sworn testimony and DOJ’s statements to the public as well as members of Congress.
Coates is in a position to confirm key facts in that narrative. One of the most experienced voting rights lawyers in the country, he was a staff attorney for many years for the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Coates received the Thurgood Marshall Decade Award in 1991 from the Georgia NAACP, as well as the Environmental Justice Award in 1994 from the Georgia Environmental Organization.
The Clinton administration hired Coates as a career lawyer in 1996. He was promoted at the Justice Department under both Clinton and George W. Bush. In 2007, he received the Civil Rights Division’s second-highest award, the Walter Barnett Memorial Award for Excellence and Advocacy.
Considering this background, it is difficult to imagine Coates not having the respect of anyone devoted to voting rights.
Yet after Coates was relieved of his post as chief of the Voting Section in January and transferred to Charleston, SC, on a detail to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he gave a remarkable speech at his farewell party. He spoke extensively about criticism he had received both inside and outside the Civil Rights Division for pursuing the case against the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia, as well as a case several years earlier in Noxubee County, Miss., in which black county officials were found guilty of a long pattern of race-based discrimination.
Coates noted his amazement that he had spent his entire career filing voting rights lawsuits on behalf of minority voters, and yet was ostracized for filing two cases involving discrimination against non-traditional defendants. (In fact, the Noxubee case was the first-ever Justice Department action charging a black defendant with blatantly discriminating against white voters, in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.)
In his farewell speech, Coates made it clear that he believes the Voting Rights Act protects all voters — and that, as a government lawyer, he couldn’t ignore violations of the law merely because the wrongdoers happened to be members of a minority group. Coates emphasized that race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act is essential to ensuring that America lives up to its creed of equal protection under the law. Selective enforcement of the law on the basis of race is not fair and does not achieve justice.
Coates’ imminent testimony before the Civil Rights Commission no doubt will be extraordinary.
The DOJ smear machine urged the left to demonize Adams as a “disgruntled” employee (despite his promotion weeks before his resignation) and to dismiss his testimony as uncorroborated (despite several sworn affidavits in his support). How will the smear machine react to Coates’ direct eyewitness testimony?
On a personal note: I have known Chris Coates since working with him when I was a career lawyer in the Civil Right Division. He is one of the most experienced, professional, and ethical lawyers I have had the honor of working with. His offer to testify in compliance with the commission’s subpoena, despite the unlawful efforts of the Justice Department to prevent his testimony, is one more example of his character.
Coates is risking his job and career at the Justice Department to do the right thing, which is itself a terrible injustice. We only can hope that his superiors at DOJ will realize that whistleblower laws exist to protect patriots such as Chris Coates. Let’s also hope that other career lawyers will realize it isn’t worth risking their reputation to follow illegal or unethical orders.