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

Coates also recounted directives received from political appointee Julie Fernandes, deputy assistant attorney general for Civil Rights. He supported Adams’ testimony that Fernandes made it clear in meetings with Voting Section staff that the Obama administration was interested only in filing “traditional types” of voting rights cases that would “provide political equality for racial and language minority voters.” Coates testified that everyone in the room understood what that meant: “No more cases like the Ike Brown or NBPP cases.”

Coates also testified that in another meeting with Voting Section staff, Fernandes said the Obama administration was not interested in enforcing the provision of Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act that requires states to maintain voter registration lists by regularly removing ineligible voters -- for instance, the names of voters who have died or moved away.

In September 2009, Coates testified, he sent a memorandum to Fernandes and the “Front Office” of the Civil Rights Division (the assistant attorney general’s political staff) in which he recommended opening investigations of eight states that appeared to be in non-compliance with the list-maintenance procedures. He did not get approval for the project, and it has yet to be acted on, Coates said -- suggesting political appointees are not pursuing possible violations of law.

Prosecutorial discretion does not allow prosecutors “to decide not to do any enforcement of a law enacted by Congress because political appointees determined that they are not interested in enforcing the law,” Coates testified. “That is an abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”

Coates made another incident public for the first time. He testified that when he became chief of the Voting Section in 2008, he began asking job applicants a new question after seeing experienced employees refuse to work on the Ike Brown case. He would ask applicants “whether they would be willing to work on cases that involved claims of racial discrimination against white voters, as well as cases that involved claims of discrimination against minority voters,” Coates testified.

Coates added that he “did not want to hire people who were politically or ideologically opposed to the equal enforcement of the voting statues the Voting Section is charged with enforcing.”

When Loretta King was named acting assistant attorney general for Civil Rights after President Obama’s inauguration, Coates testified, she called him to her office. King had heard about the question Coates was asking. She “specifically instructed” Coates that he “was not to ask any other applicants whether they would be wiling to, in effect, race-neutrally enforce the VRA.”

King took offense that Coates was asking that question, he testified, “because she [did] not support equal enforcement of the provision of the VRA and had been highly critical of the filing and civil prosecution of the Ike Brown case.”

Coates, a veteran voting rights litigator whose awards include honors from the NAACP, testified that he believes King, Fernandes, and other lawyers within Justice violated their oath to faithfully execute the law when they selectively enforced the Voting Rights Act based on the race of the victim and the perpetrator.

Biased enforcement, he testified, will encourage violations by election officials who happen to be minorities, because they will not fear repercussions from the Justice Department. In our “increasingly multiethnic society, that is a clear recipe to undermine the public’s confidence in the legitimacy of our electoral process,” he told the commission.

Unless senior officials at Justice take steps to repudiate such policies, they will destroy public confidence in the legitimacy of the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of voting rights laws, and its stewardship of the election process. If Fernandes and King have the views described by Coates, they should resign or be fired. And Perez has a responsibility to explain why he misinformed the Civil Rights Commission and why he took no steps to investigate problems Coates identified to him.

The public needs to know that such policies are not approved by Obama appointees within the Justice Department. Because if it is the case, Americans will hold the highest officials of the Obama administration to account.