PJ Media

Black Panther Case Draws Scrutiny

As I have reported here at Pajamas Media and most recently at the Weekly Standard, the inexplicable dismissal by the Obama Justice Department of the  default judgment  in a case of egregious voter intimidation at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day 2008 has unleashed a torrent of questions about why the case was dropped against all but one defendant (the individual actually wielding a nightstick got off with a proverbial slap on the hand) and who made the decision to drop it. The Justice Department has stonewalled, claiming career attorneys made the call.

But with news reports that career lawyers who did the legwork on the case were overridden and that the associate attorney general was involved in the decision to dismiss, Republicans on Capitol Hill and the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are swinging into action.

First, Rep. Lamar Smith, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, and Senate Republicans have joined together to block, at least temporarily, the confirmation of the president’s pick to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which handled the New Black Panther case. Roll Call reports:

Frustrated by what they say the Department of Justice is stalling in an investigation into alleged voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party during the 2008 election, House and Senate Republicans have coordinated a temporary blockade of President Barack Obama’s nomination of Tom Perez to be assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division. …

In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans, House Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) formally requested that a Member place a hold on Perez’s nomination.

“I write to request that you place a hold on the nomination of Mr. Tom Perez. … I ask that the hold remain in effect until the Department provides Congress with sufficient information about the sudden dismissal of a case alleging voter intimidation by the New Black Panther Party on Election Day 2008,” Smith said in the letter.

“I am currently working with the Department to schedule a briefing on this matter. I have also written to the Department expanding upon my initial questions. I respectfully request that you place a hold on Mr. Perez’s nomination until the Department clearly addresses the questions raised in our correspondence and articulates its justification for dismissing the case,” he added.

According to Roll Call, a senator has in fact placed the nomination on hold.

In a news release, Rep. Smith explained that the Justice Department’s response to Congress about the case has been “overly vague, raising concerns about possible political interference in this case. … If the Department’s political appointees applied pressure to career attorneys to dismiss this case, then they have committed an offense that undermines every American’s right to choose their elected officials.”

In response to our inquiry as to why he took this action, Smith told Pajamas Media: “The American people deserve to know why the Obama Justice Department abruptly dismissed a case against the Democratic Party’s political supporters alleging voter intimidation on Election Day 2008. Every American has the right to choose their elected officials without fear of intimidation or retribution. I remain determined to review the facts and get to the bottom of what really caused the Obama Justice Department to dismiss this case.”

Then on Friday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which previously sent a letter of inquiry demanding to know why a case of blatant physical intimidation of voters was dropped, took the extraordinary step of voting to send a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday which will take the Justice Department to task for its “largely non-responsive” reply to the commission’s prior letter. The Commission on Civil Rights pointedly concedes that it was a “mistake” to direct its previous correspondence to Acting Attorney General for Civil Rights Loretta King, who is now at the center of the controversy as to who made the decision to dismiss the case. The Commission therefore insists that Holder answer the letter personally or appoint an attorney who is not hobbled by a conflict of interest.

In addition, the Commission demands that Holder turn over information which will allow the Commission to, according to a draft letter, determine the facts giving rise to the case, why it was dismissed, why the remedy sought against the single remaining defendant is so narrow, whether the decision in the case is consistent with policy in prior investigations or amounts to a change in policy, and whether the Justice Department’s conduct is consistent with the Voting Rights Act. In no uncertain terms, the Commission reminds Holder:

In addition to our authority to subpoena documents and witnesses in aid of our mission, the Commission has even broader authority to require the cooperation of federal agencies.  The Commission’s organic statute provides: “All Federal agencies shall fully cooperate with the Commission to the end that it may effectively carry out its functions and duties.” 42 U.S.C. § 1975b(e). The Department’s previous response does not answer our most basic questions, which impairs our duty to investigate potential voting deprivations and federal enforcement policies. We trust that your response to this letter will provide us with the information necessary to make significant progress with our investigation.

The Commission is requesting a list of materials from Holder to assist in its investigation and is advising  him that the case is now “one of the commission’s top priorities.”

Commissioner Todd Gaziano explains that this sort of case is very much in keeping with the “historic mission of the Commission.” It was after all, he reminds us, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights which “laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1965.” If the Justice Department is failing to enforce voting laws for partisan reasons, the Commission has every reason to get to the bottom of it.

As noted in its letter to Holder, the Commission has the authority to subpoena documents and witnesses from private parties and local governments — a power which is enforceable by court order — and secure the cooperation of all federal agencies in conducting the Commission’s investigations. Unless Holder agrees to cooperate, the Justice Department will find itself explaining why the “most transparent administration in history” is stonewalling the Commission by refusing to produce witnesses and documents relevant to the Commission’s inquiry into whether the Justice Department is enforcing voting laws or, instead, caving into political pressure. Given the Commission’s legal authority to demand the full cooperation from the Justice Department, the only basis on which Holder could refuse to cooperate would be a claim, explicitly asserted by the president, of executive privilege.

Until now, the Obama administration has largely been able to keep the Black Panther case under the radar. However, with another round of news reports, an energized contingent of Republicans on the Hill insisting on proper oversight of the Justice Department, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights moving to investigate, that may no longer be possible.

It is time to answer a simple question: why did the Obama Justice Department dismiss an egregious case of voter intimidation that was already won?

We may in the ensuing weeks and months finally get an answer to that question.