As reported this weekend, the decision by the Obama Department of Justice to dismiss a default judgment against the New Black Panther Party and all but one individual defendant in an egregious case of voter intimidation is now the subject of two inquiries, one by the Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and one by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
These investigations may provide answers to a number of key questions:
Who in the Justice Department made the decision?
Did the Justice Department misrepresent to members of Congress that the decision was made by career attorneys?
Did improper political considerations weigh in the decision?
Does this reflect a new policy toward enforcement of civil rights laws?
As to the reasons for the dismissal, some speculate that there was an effort to conceal more widespread voter intimidation or fraud which inured to the benefit of the Obama campaign. But there is perhaps something more basic and more far-reaching than that at work.
The liberal civil rights establishment and the left-leaning staff of career attorneys (a number of whom previously worked for or hope to work for the array of leftist civil rights groups) chaffed under the Bush administration. They vociferously opposed voter I.D. laws and resisted efforts to enforce portions of the Voting Rights Act which require states to clean up outdated voter rolls to eliminate the potential for fraud.
They grumbled when the administration pursued a civil rights case in Mississippi, U.S. v. Ike Brown. A former Justice Department lawyer explains: “Brown was the black head of the local Democratic Party who controlled the county, including the local election board, in a county that is majority black. He had his own local version of Tammany Hall. He was found guilty by a federal district court of engaging in blatant discrimination against white voters; case was upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.” A line attorney pursued the case despite opposition by the then-section chief, Joe Rich. The former Justice Department attorney explains, “Other career lawyers refused to work on the case because they would not work on a case claiming discrimination by local black officials.”
And therein lies the most likely answer to the mystery as to why the Obama team would want to undo a victory in a high-profile civil rights case. The notion that civil rights laws apply to all citizens, and are not on the books merely to protect minority groups or to pursue white racists, is an anathema to the liberal civil rights establishment and their sympathetic partners in the Justice Department.
Another attorney familiar with the inner workings of the Civil Rights Division agrees with this take. He observes that Department staff “openly and proudly advocate for a different standard” depending on the race of the alleged civil rights violator. He contends that this view extends now up to the attorney general and to staff attorneys who “say it openly at the Justice Department when the topic of ‘reverse’ discrimination comes up.” He explains:
The half dozen of these cases the Bush Justice Department filed (and won) are loathed and criticized openly in the halls of the Department by so-called committed civil rights attorneys. Open contempt for these cases establishes one’s civil rights bona fides, especially to the new political appointees in the Civil Rights Division.
“The Department must refocus on the traditional mission of civil rights enforcement.” These are well-understood code words to mean federal law will not be used to bring cases against black defendants or institutions that discriminate against whites. … Sometimes these people express contempt for fair enforcement of the law to people who silently agree that the law should be enforced fairly, but don’t dare let anyone know they think it.
This view is borne out by recent comments by Eric Holder, in explaining his hiring spree in the Civil Rights Division to the New York Times:
The division is “getting back to doing what it has traditionally done,” Mr. Holder said in an interview. “But it’s really only a start. I think the wounds that were inflicted on this division were deep, and it will take some time for them to fully heal.” . . . He described his Civil Rights Division efforts as more restoration than change. The recent moves, he argued, are a return to its basic approach under presidents of both parties — despite some policy shifts between Republican and Democratic administrations — before the “sea change” and “aberration” of the Bush years.
Translation: the civil rights laws will be interpreted and enforced not as protecting anyone who is discriminated against or intimidated on the basis of race, as the civil rights laws provide, but as protecting only those of certain races.
The dismissal of the New Black Panther case can then be seen in a larger and more ominous context. It was quite likely a message to the liberal civil rights establishment: there is a new Justice Department and the days of enforcing civil rights laws against any defendant — regardless of his race — are over. One can imagine then that there might be those in Justice surprised by the firestorm created by the New Black Panther case’s dismisal who may now regret having opened the Department and its civil rights perspective up to further scrutiny. The Holder Justice Department may be chagrined to learn that most Americans take exception, strongly so, to the idea that the civil rights laws are there only to protect historically discriminated minorities. But we are certainly going to have that national conversation about race which Holder has been pining for.