Calls Dismissal of New Black Panther Case “Corrosive to Rule of Law”
By Michael P. Tremoglie
Tea Time Blog
An August 10, 2009 letter sent to Attorney General Eric Holder by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, contained a stinging rebuke to the Obama Department of Justice (DOJ). A footnote in the letter states that the explanation for the dismissal of a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (NBP) “is even more corrosive to the rule of law than the dismissal without comment.”
The DOJ filed a lawsuit in January under the Voting Rights Act against the NBP and three of its members alleging the defendants intimidated voters last Election Day. The complaint, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, where the incident occurred, alleged that NBP members Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson were stationed at a polling location wearing the uniform of the organization and Mr. Shabazz repeatedly brandished a “police-style baton weapon.”The complaint said NBP Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz confirmed that the placement of Messrs. Shabazz and Jackson was part of a nationwide effort to deploy members at polling locations. The Justice Department initially sought an injunction to prevent any similar future actions.
None of the defendants responded to the lawsuit. However, instead of immediately filing for a default judgment, as is routine, the Obama DOJ filed a notice of voluntary dismissal of the lawsuit for two of the defendants – including Mr. Jackson, who was a Democratic Party poll watcher.
DOJ only obtained an injunction against Samir Shabazz, which was granted on May 18. However, this has been criticized because it contained none of the usual conditions for such a case.
As the Commission’s letter noted, the injunction prevents Mr. Shabazz from brandishing a weapon at a polling place in Philadelphia. They thought it unusual that such an injunction in a voting rights case would only prohibit such a very specific action limited to a specific area.
The Commission’s six page letter was pursuant to two inquiries sent in June to the Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division (CRD). These letters wanted more information about what they said was the “unusual dismissal of the government’s case against most of the defendants in United States v. New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.” It was signed by the Commission’s chair Gerald A. Reynolds and Vice-Chair, Abigail Thernstrom, as well as four other commissioners.
The commissioners also noted that an earlier reply they received from Portia Robertson, Director of the Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison was “non-responsive to our questions.” They elaborated “to the extent it is responsive, it paints the [DOJ] in a poor light.”
They claimed the letter from Ms. Robertson contained some of the “vague conclusions sent to Members of Congress.” A footnote in the letter states that “These conclusions are more than weak. We believe the public rationale offered thus far is even more corrosive to the rule of law than the dismissal without comment.”
They further note that media reports have questioned Ms. King’s involvement in the dismissal of the case and the role of political appointees – specifically naming Associate Attorney General Thomas Perelli. Because of this they want Attorney General Holder to personally direct responses to their inquiries or appoint someone from DOJ who does not have a potential conflict of interest.
The Commission believes that since they are obligated to investigate enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, they are entitled to know the justification for the dismissal. They are seeking the “evidentiary and legal standards” for CRD’s actions.
They also want to compare the actions in this case with other voter intimidation investigations to determine if there was anything unusual about the treatment of this investigation by the CRD.
According to Ms. Thernstrom’s office, the Commission has considered making this incident part of their annual statutory report. This report focuses on a selected area of civil rights enforcement. Last year’s addressed civil rights issues raised by the mortgage crisis.
Other government officials are also demanding answers about this case and speculating that the Obama DOJ has been politicized.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R. Va., said in a July 31 letter to Holder that he can only conclude that the decision to overrule the career attorneys in the CRD and DOJ who argued in favor of continuing the case was “politically motivated.”