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With DOJ Stonewalling on New Black Panthers Case, Civil Rights Commission Asks for Expanded Powers

In an explosive and raucous hearing on August 13, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted 5-3 to officially ask Congress to expand its investigatory powers. This action came as a result of U.S. Justice Department stonewalling regarding the dismissal of a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party.

The commission meeting was dominated by discussion of the DOJ’s continued muzzling of career attorney Christopher Coates, who was head of the DOJ Voting Rights section when the case was dismissed. The commission has been unable to force the DOJ to allow them to talk to Coates.

Among the commission’s recommendations was a proposal to give the commission new powers to appoint a special counsel and a proposal to provide the commission authority to hire its own counsel and proceed independently to federal court if the attorney general refuses to enforce a subpoena or other lawful request.

Commissioner Ashley L. Taylor said the entire controversy raised a question about the independence of the commission itself:

This whole debate goes to that fundamental question — and I think we should discuss openly what we think we are. Are we an independent commission, or are we a commission that can ask any question and when rebuffed, we go away?

Inflaming the tone of the meeting was Commissioner Michael Yaki, a San Francisco political consultant who once served as a senior advisor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi appointed Yaki to his six-year term in 2005.

Yaki repeatedly interrupted the proceedings, and remarked that the meeting was “a joke.” Yaki also charged that in January — when two commissioners’ terms expire — they would be replaced by President Obama and the entire issue would go away. He said the search for additional teeth to investigate was “a last gasp” effort by conservatives who currently hold a majority on the civil rights body.

The case originally came to public attention when two members of the New Black Panther Party wore menacing uniforms, harassed voters, and wielded a club outside a voting precinct in Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential election. The Voting Rights Section of the Justice Department originally indicted them, and a judge found them guilty when they did not show for their hearing.

But the case was later dismissed by Obama political appointees, over the objections of career attorneys.

Voting Rights head Christopher Coates was removed from his post, reportedly after he objected to the decision to dismiss the case. In January of this year, Coates was transferred to South Carolina where he is working for the U.S. attorney, but he is still under Justice Department control. The commission has tried to subpoena Coates to testify about what happened inside the DOJ, but to no avail.

Triggering the meeting was an August 11, 2010, letter from U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, denying Coates to the commission. Commissioner Todd Gaziano opened the meeting by calling the Perez letter “breathtaking and insulting.” He asked whether there was a double standard at the Justice Department:

We have sworn testimony before the commission that Deputy Assistant Attorney General [for Civil Rights] Julie Fernandes instructed the management … to never file another voting rights law suit against a black or national minority.

In the letter, Perez told the commission that since Mr. Coates no longer worked in the Justice Department’s main headquarters, he no longer would be available to testify before them:

We do not believe that a Civil Rights Division attorney who has been on detail to the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina since mid-January 2010 is the appropriate witness to testify regarding current Division policies.

Commissioner Peter N. Kirsanow said the Department of Justice was “contemptuous”:

We have a witness, who testified under oath that in fact there is a policy, a culture in DOJ not to enforce voting rights laws. … Christopher Coates would corroborate all those things if he would be permitted to testify. … And then they went even further and said: “Guess what? We transferred this guy outside the jurisdiction of your subpoena authority and you can’t get him either.” It’s extraordinary. This is contemptuous of this particular process. … This is an abomination of the process. It’s an abomination of civil rights laws. It’s an abomination of the enforcement of our laws. It’s an abomination of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It’s an abomination of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The chairman, Commissioner Gerald A. Reynolds, said:

If Coates were to come before the commission, he will either refute the statements made by Mr. Adams on this point, or he will confirm them. … [If I were the attorney general] I would have volunteered Mr. Coates to settle this factual matter.

Commissioner Gaziano said he was dumbfounded by Perez’s refusal to produce Coates:

We would be willing to have Chris Coates testify just about policy statements that Julie Fernandes and others have made, the hostility to race neutral enforcement of the civil rights laws, the culture that Christian Adams testified to in the division of hostility to race neutral enforcement. … And yet in Perez’s response to us, he does not even acknowledge the statements we have raised to his attention. … [Coates] would have relevant and material evidence to present to the commission. … It’s rather dumbfounding to me that he doesn’t acknowledge those statements and he continues to refuse to allow Mr. Coates to testify.

Commissioner Yaki originally boycotted a July 6 session in which the commission heard testimony from another DOJ career attorney, J. Christian Adams, who resigned following the case. Adams — a Pajamas Media contributor — described a culture within the Civil Rights division of the DOJ that encouraged hostility towards civil rights cases in which victims were white.

Yaki, after boycotting the earlier hearing, has changed his tactics, charging that the commission was not a legitimate body. Throughout the session were heated exchanges between Yaki and other commissioners. For several minutes, he argued with Commissioner Peter N. Kirsanow.

Said Yaki:

The fact is that one witness does not a conspiracy make. … There is no fire, all this blowing smoke is just that.

Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom said she didn’t believe Julie Fernandes would really have said she would not enforce the law for whites “unless she is a moron.” She relegated the issue to “internal management of the department,” and not a new policy on civil rights enforcement. Said Yaki:

I agree with Commissioner Thernstrom. … If I were them [Justice] faced with statements you and others have made to the press, I would refuse to get involved in this firefight. Because there is no win.

Gaziano returned to the issue of the commission’s authority, power, and independence, all of which have suffered under the Obama administration:

The stonewalling has raised a larger issue: whether we can go to court to force our subpoenas without the Department of Justice’s assistance.

Under the commission’s charter, a president can appoint up to four commissioners. Congress has the right to appoint two Democrats and two Republicans. Two conservative appointments will expire in December, and President Obama will have the right to choose new commissioners to replace two conservative incumbents.