Commentary Magazine


Obstruction of Justice

On August 6, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sent Eric Holder a letter reiterating its request to allow Chris Coates, the former head of the New Black Panther Party trial team, to testify. Coates had, upon his relocation to the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina, given a goodbye speech detailing the dangers of his colleagues’ aversion to colorblind enforcement of civil rights laws, which is the central focus of the commission’s work. The commission, in an effort to avoid any claim of “privilege,” offered to limit questioning to whether there is a “policy and/or culture within the Department of discriminatory enforcement of civil rights laws” and whether the administration is refusing to enforce the portion of the Voting Rights Act that requires local and state governments to clean up the voting rolls to prevent fraud.

On August 11, civil rights department head Thomas Perez, who has been accused of giving misleading testimony to the commission and to Congress, sent a rather preposterous response. He assured the commission that there was no problem, no problem at all, because the Justice Department is committed “to the evenhanded application of the law.” And since Perez has told the commission so, there is no need to allow Coates to testify. (“In light of my clear articulation of our enforcement policy … we do not believe that a Civil Rights Division attorney who has been on detail to the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Carolina since mid-January 2010 is the appropriate witness to testify.”)

It’s jaw-dropping, really, even for this crew. Coates, who has detailed knowledge of the most explosive allegations, can’t be the right person to testify, because he was shuffled off to South Carolina after his maddening experience on the New Black Panther trial case and a fiery farewell address in which he accused the department of failing to enforce the law in an “evenhanded” manner. So he can’t possibly be the right person to testify.

As this report details, an acrimonious commission meeting took place on Friday in which a minority of the commissioners carried the department’s water and found no problem with the galling stonewall. But a majority of the commissioners found that the Obama administration had been obstructionist and passed a motion that restated the commission’s statutory authority and the attorney general’s refusal to cooperate with the commission’s investigation:

The Commission’s organic statute authorizes it to subpoena witnesses and the production of written material in aid of its mission, and it authorizes the Attorney General to enforce the Commission’s subpoenas in federal court if any person or entity refuses to comply. The Commission’s statute also requires that “All Federal agencies shall cooperate fully with the Commission to the end that it may effectively carry out its functions and duties,” 42 U.S.C. § 1975b(e), but it is equally unclear whether the Commission has recourse to seek judicial enforcement of this command, absent representation from the Department of Justice. … In the NBPP investigation that is the subject of this report, the Department of Justice refused to comply with certain Commission requests for information concerning DOJ’s enforcement actions, and it instructed its employees not to comply with the Commission’s subpoenas for testimony.

The commission also adopted the following:

Congress should consider amendments to the Commission’s statute to address investigations in which the Attorney General and/or the Department of Justice have a conflict of interest in complying fully with the Commission’s requests for information.  Options to address a potential conflict of interest might include the following:

Enactment of a statutory procedure by which the Commission may request the Attorney General to appoint a special counsel with authority to represent it in federal court, which request the Attorney General must personally respond to in writing within a specified period of time.

Enactment of a statutory provision to clarify that the Commission may hire its own counsel and proceed independently in federal court if the Attorney General refuses to enforce a subpoena or other lawful request, especially those directed at the Department of Justice, its officers, or its employees.

A conscious decision not to alter the Commission’s statute or a statutory confirmation that the Attorney General and Department of Justice can act against the Commission’s interest without any particular explanation.

The last option would surely be popular with congressional Democrats.

But the real resolution of this will probably come only if Coates and others defy the department’s order to ignore the commission’s subpoenas (not likely if they want to continue working in this administration), or if control of the House and/or Senate flips to GOP control, and Coates, Perez, and others are ordered to appear and give congressional testimony under oath.

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