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.