Imagine arriving at your neighborhood polling place on Election Day and seeing two men guarding the entrance, dressed in paramilitary uniforms, wielding a deadly billy club, shouting racial epithets and menacing voters. Would you walk through the door? Now imagine political appointees in the Department of Justice (DOJ) refusing to pursue the case, the U.S. Attorney General stonewalling and refusing to enforce lawful subpoenas in the face of questions about that decision, and the mainstream media remaining silent on the story for a year.
This isn’t a case of pure imagination. This is, in a nutshell, the true story of the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) voter intimidation case, and it’s one dramatic example of the increased politicization of the Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama’s administration.
The story begins on Election Day 2008 in Philadelphia, when two Panthers engaged in a “textbook case of voter intimidation” in violation of the 1965 Voter Rights Act. Their actions were caught on video, and witnesses offered sworn statements that one of the Panthers called poll watchers a “white devil” and a “cracker” who would be “ruled by the black man.”
Enter the DOJ in early January 2009, which sued the two Panthers, the head of the national NBPP and the party itself (on the grounds that it endorsed the intimidation in Philadelphia and planned to deploy 300 of its members on Election Day, as The Weekly Standard reports). The defendants didn’t respond to the lawsuit, the DOJ won a default judgment against them, and it appeared to be an open and shut case – until Obama’s political appointees got their hands on it.
In May 2009, acting Obama political appointees inexplicably ordered career lawyers in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to dismiss the case against all but the billy-club-wielding defendant, Minister King Samir Shabazz, who is now under a joke of an injunction that allows him to intimidate voters anywhere except at polling places in the City of Philadelphia. And the NBPP, which is an identified hate group, has suffered no consequences. (Read our timeline of the case and a summary of the parties involved for more details.)
The Justice Department’s decision not to pursue the case against the defendants is shocking considering the clear cut facts at hand. As the DOJ trial team of career attorneys who prosecuted the case noted:
“We strongly believe that this is one of the clearest violations of Section 11(b) [of the Voting Rights Act] the Department has come across. There is never a good reason to bring a billy club to a polling station. If the conduct of these men, which was video recorded and broadcast nationally, does not violate Section 11(b), the statute will have little meaning going forward.”
So why was this open-and-shut case all but dropped? Some very revealing testimony might explain why. On July 6, J. Christian Adams, one of the DOJ attorneys who brought the lawsuit against the Panthers, testified under oath before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission of a culture of hostility to the race-neutral enforcement of civil rights laws at the DOJ Civil Rights Division. The most dramatic example came after the suit was dismissed, when Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes gave instructions that no more cases would be brought against black defendants. Ironically, Fernandes, who is an Obama appointee, is responsible for voting rights enforcement.
There is more to the story. Much more. Thomas J. Perrelli, the associate attorney general who approved the decision to dismiss the NBPP defendants, visited the White House nine times when key decisions about the case were being made. What did he discuss with the Obama White House officials? The DOJ has ordered two of its attorneys who were subpoenaed by the Civil Rights Commission not to comply, even though a separate statute requires all federal agencies to “comply fully” with Civil Rights Commission requests. Why is DOJ acting like it has something terrible to hide? Why was the award-winning career attorney who led the DOJ effort against the NBPP relieved of his position and transferred to South Carolina? There are also other examples of a highly political Justice Department being openly hostile toward enforcing the Voting Rights Act fairly, in a race-neutral manner. The Civil Rights Commission is continuing its investigation, and The Heritage Foundation’s Todd Gaziano – a member of the Commission – is playing a leading part in the effort.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, ombudsman Andrew Alexander lamented the paper’s long silence on the NBPP story, said that “ideology and party politics are at play,” and noted that the paper’s national editor “wished The Post had written about it sooner.” Alexander concluded, “Better late than never. There’s plenty left to explore.”
He’s right. It’s about time this story gets the attention it deserves. Voting rights enforcement is no laughing matter, politics should be put aside, reporters, Congress and the American people should start asking questions, and Attorney General Holder better have some answers.