I worked closely with the former chief of the Voting Section, Christopher Coates, during my time at the Justice Department. He was a voting rights giant. He brought cases to stop racial discrimination as far back as 1976, just a decade after passage of the Voting Rights Act. Coates was a former attorney with the ACLU, and while at Justice, he was instrumental in bringing the case against the New Black Panther Party.

Because he believed in race-neutral enforcement of the civil rights laws, his powers as voting section chief were slowly sucked away by the Holder Justice Department.

Eventually made an intentionally powerless figurehead, Coates was transferred to South Carolina to work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. His courageous going-away speech to the entire Voting Section and to the deputy assistant attorney general left little doubt about the “change” at Justice:

I have never assumed that I was entitled to ignore that clear language in federal law and therefore ignore incidents where evidence showed white voters were discriminated against or where the wrongdoers were themselves members of a minority group. … I have had many discussions concerning these cases. In one of my discussions concerning the Ike Brown case, I had a lawyer say he was opposed to our filing such suits. When I asked why, he said that only when he could go to Mississippi and find no disparities between the socioeconomic levels of black and white residents, might he support such a suit. But until that day, he did not think that we should be filing voting rights cases against blacks or on behalf of white voters.

I believe that one of the most detrimental ways to politicize the enforcement process in the Voting Section is to enforce the provisions of the Voting Rights Act only for the protection of certain racial or ethnic minorities; or to take the position that the Voting Section is not going to enforce certain provision of any of the voting statutes the Voting Section has the responsibility to enforce. Such decisions carry with them obvious, enormous implications for partisan political struggles.

Coates was not issuing a hypothetical warning for some future dereliction of the Department’s duty. The danger had already arrived.

United States v. Ike Brown

Coates and I learned about the hostility towards equal enforcement of the civil rights laws long before United States v. New Black Panther Party. Coates brought, and we won, the case of United States v. Ike Brown arising out of Mississippi.

Brown was the head of the Democratic Party in Noxubee County, a majority black county. The party ran the Democratic primaries, which served as de facto general elections, and Brown made no secret about his desire to see every government office in the county held by a black officeholder. Brown ran a Tammany Hall-style political operation. During one election, he literally stuffed illegal ballots he knew were marked for black candidates through an optical scanner in front of a crowd of angry citizens shouting provisions of Mississippi law at him.

“You ain’t dealing with Mississippi law, this is Ike Brown’s law,” he replied.

Brown organized teams of notary publics to roam the county collecting absentee ballots. In many cases, the notaries cast the ballots themselves instead of the voters.

Brown took absentee ballots to his home the night before the election, and put yellow sticky notes on them instructing compliant poll workers — whom he chose — why the ballots of white voters should be rejected. The poll workers complied, and canceled their votes.

Brown imported ineligible black candidates from outside the county to run against white incumbents.

He allowed squads of “assistors” to pollute the voting sites and impose “assistance,” telling black voters how to vote inside the booth — in many cases marking the ballots for the voters. During one election, teams of federal observers counted hundreds of verified examples of illegal assistance. Brown lawlessly disqualified white candidates from running for office. He published the names of 174 white citizens in the newspaper, and said they would be subject to challenge if they tried to vote.

Ike Brown institutionalized racial lawlessness, and brazenly victimized white voters during the 2003 and 2007 elections. And yet, many in the Voting Section never wanted the Department even to investigate the matter.

They voiced explicit opposition to Coates about investigating the discrimination. Superiors were reluctant to recommend to political appointees approval of a lawsuit. After the case was filed, the hostility continued. Most attorneys — except one brave woman — refused to work on the matter with Coates. Hostility pervaded the Voting Section, directed at Coates personally and also towards the theory of the case.

I also encountered open skepticism about the Ike Brown case after I was assigned to work on it in 2005. All manner of reasoning was offered to me regarding why the case should not have been brought.

Some said that unless whites were victims of historic discrimination, they shouldn’t be protected. Voting Rights lawyers will recognize this as an argument grounded in Senate Factor One of the Supreme Court’s Gingles v. Thornburg jurisprudence. Other lawyers grounded their objections in Senate Factor Five, which speaks generally of educational and economic differences between races. Because whites were better off than blacks in Mississippi, no lawsuit should be allowed to protect whites, they argued.

Of course, all of these lawyers knew that the settled law was directly contrary to their reliance on the Senate Factors. No Senate Factor can serve as a veto on any case. But they sought mightily to ground their hostility in some sort of legal theory.

There were more sinister explanations for the hostility. During a deposition I did of a black elected official in Noxubee, he agreed that racially discriminatory behavior against whites occurred:

“But you got to understand,” he admitted saying, “now it’s payback time.”