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Obama Civil Rights Head Defends Black Panther Dismissal

On Friday, the much anticipated testimony of Civil Rights division head Thomas Perez before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was heard. As the Washington Times reported, Perez implicitly rebuked both the trial team that filed the case and the appellate section that endorsed the work of the trial team:

Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Friday there was “insufficient evidence” to bring a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party who disrupted a Philadelphia polling place in the 2008 general elections.

Mr. Perez, the only Justice Department official to testify publicly before the commission about the case, said that without sufficient proof that party members or the organization’s leader, Malik Zulu Shabazz, directed or controlled unlawful activities at the poll or made speeches to incite or produce lawless action, the complaint “would have likely failed” in court.

Perez declared that, of course, the Justice Department is committed to equal enforcement of the civil rights laws regardless of the race of the defendants. But one commissioner, independent Todd Gaziano, isn’t buying it:

I wanted to believe there were all sorts of wrongheaded but NOT racist reasons for the decision to dismiss the defendants. But there are several reasons for me to believe that a racist application of the voting rights laws might have been at play. There is some evidence that is already in the public domain. Examples of that are the fact that there apparently is a culture in the civil rights division where some senior section chiefs and other supervising attorneys have expressed the view and engaged in conduct supporting that view that they don’t believe the voting rights laws should ever be enforced against blacks and other minorities. Those reports have been in the press in the past year or so and it seems to me from Perez’ response that he has done nothing to investigate whether that culture or those caustic views really are held by some of his supervising attorneys.”

And: “There is other evidence. There is the absence of a satisfactory explanation for why they did dismiss the Black Panther suit. Reasonable people know that if there is a racist reason for something and a good reason for something, and the reason has been called into question, a decent law enforcement agency when called to explain would want to provide the reasonable explanation – and they still haven’t done that. Third, [former civil rights division Voting Section chief] Chris Coates’ farewell address suggests that there still are several people in the division who do not believe in a race neutral application of the voting rights laws. And it seemed from Perez’ responses to me today that he did nothing specific to investigate why Chris Coates believed that [about his former co-workers].

So what now? The Justice Department continues to stonewall, refusing to allow witnesses with direct knowledge of the decision-making process to testify and refusing to appoint a special prosecutor to litigate the issue of the commission’s subpoenas. It’s quite a performance by an administration that promised to insulate from politics the work of its career attorneys. Well, one possibility is that one or more members of the trial team will defy the orders of their superiors not to testify and come forward to defend their work and reveal the interference they encountered. Another is that if the House flips control, congressional oversight will finally be undertaken and the appropriate witnesses subpoenaed and required to testify. One senses that after Perez’s performance and his hear-no-evil-see-no-evil approach to widespread reports that his division does have a double standard for civil rights enforcement, conscientious career lawyers must be mulling their options.



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