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U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Demands Answers on Voter Intimidation Case Dismissal

As was commented upon here at CONTENTIONS, and widely reported and remarked upon elsewhere, the Obama Justice Department took the unusual action last month of dismissing a default judgment against the New Black Panther Party in connection with a case of  voter intimidation on Election Day on November 4, 2008. Members of the NBPP were caught on film blocking access to the polls and physically and verbally intimidating voters, even going so far as to  wield a nightstick in front of voters and poll watchers. The Justice Department’s lawyers gathered evidence, obtained the affidavit of former civil rights advocate Bartle Bull, and filed a complaint. When the defendants did not respond and the court invited the Justice Department to file a default judgment, the case was inexplicably withdrawn.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has now taken up the issue and sent a letter to Loretta King, Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division, demanding an explanation. By a vote of 4-0 (with one member abstaining for reasons not yet clear), the Commission members voted to send the letter seeking to get to the bottom of this. After setting out the facts which gave rise to the original Justice Department complaint, the Commissioners explain:

Though it had basically won the case and could have submitted a motion for default judgment against the Party and its members for failing to respond to the Division’s complaint, the Division took the unusual move of voluntarily dismissing the charges against all but the defendant who waived [sic] the nightstick. Yet even as to that remaining defendant, the only relief the Division requested was weak – an injunction prohibiting him from displaying the weapon within 100 feet of any polling place in Philadelphia. It has since been revealed that one of the defendants had been carrying credentials as a member of, and poll watcher for, the local Democratic committee.

The Commissioners write that the previously announced efforts by the Justice Department to play an aggressive role in enforcing voting rights “ring hollow if they are not accompanied by swift, decisive action to prosecute obvious violators.” The Commissioners ask that the Civil Rights Division advise the Commission of  the rationale for dismissing the charges against defendants and of its evidentiary and legal standards for dismissing certain charges in cases of alleged voter intimidation.” They further ask for information on “any similar cases in which CRD has dismissed charges against a defendant.”

It should be noted that Congressman  Lamar Smith (R-TX) has already sent a similar letter to the Justice Department demanding an explanation for the dismissal. It should also be noted that if the Justice Department stonewalls, the Commission does have the right to issue subpoenas and to investigate the matter further. Perhaps the Commission will get to the bottom of this issue and determine who in the Justice Department overrode the decisions of career lawyers and why the Justice Department chose to abandon a successful prosecution of the most egregious case of voter intimidation in recent memory.

What is even more remarkable in this already eye-popping story is that an independent commission has been forced to take this matter up because the relevant oversight committees in Congress have failed to hold a single hearing concerning the matter. One would think those in Congress who squawked so loudly about alleged failure in the Bush administration to enforce civil rights laws and who objected so strenuously to “politcization” of justice by appointees meddling with the work of career attorneys would have shown more interest in the matter.