The “politicization” of the Justice Department was one of many aspects of the Bush administration which the Obama administration was going to cure. But it appears that while the party of the administration has changed, we are seeing a level of political meddling at the Justice Department which the Bush administration never remotely approached.
First, we had word that Eric Holder overruled the career attorney lawyers’ research on the issue of voting rights for the District of Columbia. Now we learn that political appointees have overturned the work of career attorneys attempting to prevent voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party. The Washington Times reported:
Justice Department political appointees overruled career lawyers and ended a civil complaint accusing three members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense of wielding a nightstick and intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place last Election Day, according to documents and interviews.
The incident — which gained national attention when it was captured on videotape and distributed on YouTube — had prompted the government to sue the men, saying they violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by scaring would-be voters with the weapon, racial slurs and military-style uniforms.
The Justice Department filed a complaint under Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act (which prohibits any attempt to “intimidate, threaten or coerce” any voter) against the New Black Panther Party after months of research and acquiring a sworn affidavit attesting to the intimidation. The affidavit by veteran civil rights attorney Bartle Bull describes the egregious behavior in which armed men appeared at a polling place. Bull explains he “never encountered or heard of” such blatant physical intimidation at the polls in his many years as a civil rights advocate.
Neither the New Black Panther Party nor any of the individual defendants responded to the suit. The federal judge therefore ordered the Civil Rights Division to file a default judgment. However, without providing any grounds for doing so the Division moved to dismiss the complaint — in essence forfeiting the case.
The Washington Times report explains that the injunction was obtained to prevent further intimidation. However, the career attorneys were prevented from proceeding further:
Court records reviewed by The Times show that career Justice lawyers were seeking a default judgment and penalties against the three men as recently as May 5, before abruptly ending their pursuit 10 days later.
People directly familiar with the case, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, said career lawyers in two separate Justice offices had recommended proceeding to default judgment before political superiors overruled them.
Now Rep. Lamar Smith, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, wants to know what is going on. Pajamas Media has obtained a letter sent on May 28 from Rep. Smith to Loretta King, the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, demanding to know why the case was dropped. He writes:
For example, why did the Civil Rights Division voluntarily dismiss a lawsuit that it had effectively already won, against defendants who were physically threatening voters? Is the Division concerned that this dismissal will encourage the New Black Panther Party, or other groups, to intimidate voters? Why did the Division seek such limited relief against a defendant who was actually carrying and brandishing a weapon at a polling station on Election Day? What role did the change of administration play in the unusual resolution of voluntarily dismissing a case on which the Division had already prevailed?
Smith is also demanding a briefing on the circumstances surrounding the lawsuit and its dismissal and all non-privileged documents relating to the dismissal of the lawsuit. So the question remains: Is the Obama administration serious about impartially and apolitically enforcing federal law? Or is the Justice Department now the handmaiden to the Obama administration’s political agenda? Moreover, the absence of any oversight by the Democratic majority in Congress leaves one wondering whether “politicization” is still such a bad thing in their eyes, so long as the “right” political party is in charge.
It is true that every administration is entitled to its own priorities and policy agenda. But each and every administration must faithfully and vigorously enforce existing laws, especially those which protect fundamental rights such as the right to vote. The appearance that the administration would rather not set an example and exact appropriate penalties in a case of egregious voter intimidation raises serious and troubling questions.
The Judiciary Committee — Democrats included — should insist on some swift and complete answers from the Justice Department. And if they are not forthcoming, the public may rightly conclude that “transparency” and the “impartial administration of justice” are merely slogans for those seeking to gain office.