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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 trial team was poised to enter a default judgment in late April 2009. An order for a default of judgment was drafted and sent to the voting section management. On the morning of April 29, the acting deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights, Steven Rosenbaum, sent an email to Coates about the case. It was the first indication by any department official that something was amiss. “I have serious doubts about the merits of the motion for entry of a default judgment and the request for injunctive relief,” Rosenbaum, an Obama appointee, wrote. “Most significantly, this case raises serious First Amendment issues, but the papers make no mention of the First Amendment.” Rosenbaum asked Coates a series of questions—whether “the defendants make any statements threatening physical harm to voters or persons aiding voters,” for example, and what was the “factual predicate for enjoining the Party, as opposed to individual defendants”—which indicated that he was not familiar with the case and had not read the detailed memorandum accompanying the draft order. 

The trial team was surprised by the email and answered Rosenbaum point by point in a response sent that same evening. They corrected his misstatements and explained in answer to his First Amendment concerns, “We are not seeking to enjoin the making of those (or any) statements. We plan to introduce them as evidence to show that what happened in Philadelphia on Election Day was planned and announced in advance by the central authority of the NBPP, and was a NBPP initiative.” They pointed out that dressing in military garb did not raise First Amendment concerns when “used with the brandishing of a weapon to intimidate people going to the polling station.” They concluded: “We strongly believe that this is one of the clearest violations of Section 11(b) [of the Voting Rights Act] the Department has come across. There is never a good reason to bring a billy club to a polling station. If the conduct of these men, which was video recorded and broadcast nationally, does not violate Section 11(b), the statute will have little meaning going forward.”

The trial team assumed that Rosenbaum was simply confused about the applicable law. The notion that this was a problematic case would have been outlandish. With video evidence, multiple witnesses, and clear case law, it was one the easiest cases on which any of the trial team attorneys—who had more than 75 years of collective experience—had worked.

After sending the response, Coates and Robert Popper met with Rosenbaum and the then acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, Loretta King. People familiar with the discussions describe “two days of shouting.” The trial team now knew that DoJ political appointees were serious about undermining the case by using whatever arguments they could dream up, including First Amendment concerns. The team prepared a detailed memo dated May 6 explaining the factual and legal basis for the case. In 13 pages, the attorneys meticulously analyzed the law and the facts and rebutted any notion that the First Amendment could insulate the Panthers. The memo made clear that Rosenbaum’s and King’s arguments for dismissing the case were spurious. Rosenbaum and King, for example, argued that legal precedent involving protestors at abortion clinics would undermine the case. The trial team pointed out, however, that these cases were either inapplicable or actually supported the issuance of an injunction when there was a significant government interest (such as the protection of voting rights) at stake.

The arguments continued after the May 6 memo was submitted. During one meeting in a conference room on the 5th floor of the Main Justice building, Coates became so exasperated he threw the memo at Rosenbaum who had admitted not reading the trial team’s detailed briefing on the issues. 

Rosenbaum and King sent a request to the appellate section asking their opinion of the case. The appellate attorneys sided with the trial team on May 13. Coates announced this to his team with the words “Good news.” They all agreed it would be unthinkable for their superiors to nix the case. They were wrong. On May 15, Coates received an order to dismiss the case against everyone but the baton-menacing Shabazz. And they were ordered to scale back the injunction against him to cover only the display of a weapon within 100 feet of a Philadelphia polling place until 2012. (No other behavior was enjoined.)

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