Time for Change: Gov't Must Address Lawlessness Uncovered by Christopher Coates

Friday’s testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by Christopher Coates -- a career Justice Department lawyer and supervisor -- knocked down the Potemkin Village that the Obama administration has built to obscure why Justice officials dismissed a voter-intimidation case against two members of New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia.

Coates, former chief of the Voting Section in the Civil Rights Division, testified that Justice officials purposefully dropped the New Black Panthers case because they didn’t want to enforce the Voting Rights Act against minority defendants accused of violating the law.

Coates’ sworn testimony to the independent Civil Rights Commission supported accusations made previously in testimony by J. Christian Adams, a former career lawyer in the Voting Section.

In a long and detailed opening statement, Coates sought to confirm the truth of Adams’ charges.

Most disturbing was Coates’ description of a culture of animus within the Civil Rights Division toward race-neutral enforcement of federal voting rights laws. He described an atmosphere of harassment directed at lawyers and paralegals who worked on the NBPP case, and on an earlier case filed in Noxubee, Mississippi, against Ike Brown, a twice-convicted felon and political activist who runs Noxubee County. Like the defendants in the Philadelphia case, he is black.

Lawyers and other staff within the Voting Section also refused to work on the Brown case, Coates testified, because they did not believe the Justice Department should prosecute blacks or other racial minorities -- no matter what law they violated. Coates testified that he had complained about this attitude and unwritten policy to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez, a political appointee.

When Perez testified before the Civil Rights Commission, he said no such policy or problem existed.

Coates, in a lawyerly manner, dismantled the Obama administration’s justifications for dismissing the case against the New Black Panthers accused of intimidating white voters on Election Day 2008:

To understand the irrationality of these articulated reasons for gutting this case, one only has to state the facts in the racial reverse.

Assume that two members of the KKK, one of which lived in an apartment building that was being used as a polling place, showed up at the entrance in KKK uniform, and that one of the Klansman was carrying a billy stick. Further assume that the two Klansmen were yelling racial slurs at black voters who were a minority of people registered to vote at this polling place, and the Klansmen were blocking ingress to the polling place. Assume further that a local policeman comes on the scene and determines that the Klansman with the billy club must leave, but that the other Klansman could stay because he was certified as a poll watcher for a local political party.

In those circumstances does anyone seriously believe that the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights would contend that on the basis of the facts and law, the CRD [Civil Rights Division] did not have a case under the VRA [Voting Rights Act] against this hypothetical Klansman because ... he was allowed to stay at the polling place by a local police officer because he was a poll watcher?

I certainly hope Mr. Perez would not find that hypothetical case lacking in merit, and I will guarantee you that Ms. King, Mr. Rosenbaum, Mr. Kappelhoff, and Ms. Clarke would not either. However, such reasons are a part of the publicly articulated grounds for the CRD’s decision to instruct me to dismiss a significant portion of the NBPP case.