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Friends in High Places

The Obama Justice Department went to bat for the New Black Panther party—and then covered it up.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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The case is straightforward. On Election Day 2008, two members of the New Black Panther party (NBPP) dressed in military garb were captured on videotape at a Philadelphia polling place spouting racial epithets and menacing voters. One, Minister King Samir Shabazz, wielded a nightstick. It was a textbook case of voter intimidation and clearly covered under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Friends in High Places

Panthers at the Philadelphia polling station on Election Day 2008

A Department of Justice trial team was assigned to investigate. They gathered affidavits from witnesses—one of the poll watchers was called a “white devil” and a “cracker.” A Panther told him he would be “ruled by the black man.” The trial team, all career Justice attorneys and headed by voting section chief Chris Coates, filed a case against the two Panthers caught on tape. Malik Zulu Shabazz, head of the national NBPP, and the party itself were also named based on evidence the party had planned the deployment of 300 members on Election Day and on statements after the incident in which the NBPP endorsed the intimidation at the Philadelphia polling station.

The trial team quickly obtained a default judgment—meaning it had won the case because the New Black Panther party failed to defend itself. Yet in May 2009, Obama Justice Department lawyers, appointed temporarily to fill top positions in the civil rights division, ordered the case against the NBPP dismissed. An administration that has pledged itself to stepping-up civil rights enforcement dropped the case and, for over a year, has prevented the trial team lawyers from telling their story. 

The Panthers like to tout their “victory” and parrot the Obama Justice Department’s line that the case was unmeritorious. The party held a national convention in Atlanta over Memorial Day weekend (sponsored and attended by the once mainstream Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a grab bag of socialist and anti-Semitic figures). Its website boasts: “The New Black Panther Party has been embroiled in a battle between Republican Congressmen and the U.S. Department of Justice over a ‘voter intimidation’ scandal for the last 18 months. During these 18 months right wing and Republican Newspaper and Electronic media have gone to exhaustive lengths to discredit and slander the New Black Panther Party and its Chairman and Attorney Malik Zulu Shabazz.”

But on June 4, J. Christian Adams, a veteran lawyer in Justice’s voting section and a key member of the trial team, resigned. His reasons were spelled out in a letter that also noted that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which was investigating the dismissal, had subpoenaed him and Coates, but their superiors, in violation of federal law, had ordered them not to testify. He noted that “the defendants in the New Black Panther lawsuit have become increasingly belligerent in their rhetoric toward the attorneys who brought the case. .  .  . Their grievances toward us generally echo the assertions [by Justice Department officials] that the facts and law did not support the lawsuit against them.” Coates, too, has left the Voting Section, moving to South Carolina to work in the U.S. attorney’s office. Last Friday, the civil rights commission’s general counsel, David Blackwood, announced that he had received an email from Christian Adams’s attorney stating that Adams is now available to provide information to the commission. Commissioner Todd Graziano said they would schedule Adams’s appearance at a public hearing as soon as possible as the commission had been seeking his testimony for many months.

With Adams’s resignation and letter, a clearer picture is finally emerging of what led to the dismissal of the case, the actions of DoJ political appointees, the department’s misrepresentations about the case, and the Obama administration’s approach to civil rights enforcement.

 

Based on documents obtained by The Weekly Standard and interviews with Justice personnel, we now know far more about the sequence of events surrounding the dismissal. The then-acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, Grace Chung Becker, signed off on the case as the Bush administration was leaving office in January 2009. She confirms that the decision to file the case was an easy one. In response to my questions, she was emphatic that this was a serious case of voter intimidation. The trial team, which also included attorneys Robert Popper and Spencer Fisher, conducted its investigation and on January 8, 2009, filed suit against the NBPP. As the Panthers did not respond to the lawsuit, the department had a slam-dunk victory. 

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