Ben Smith has an interesting piece in Politico on differences between conservatives regarding the Justice Department’s dismissal of the New Black Panther voter intimidation case and the subsequent investigation by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Conservative heavyweights Abigail Thernstrom and Linda Chavez, both of whom have worked on the commission, tell Smith that conservative complaints about the case are overblown. Chavez even suggests that the commission’s investigation demonstrates that it has outlived its usefulness. Chavez, and others in the piece, is critical of Fox News for covering the story in depth.
Most mainstream news organizations have ignored the story or treated it dismissively – something that is sure to change in light of the conservative-on-conservative angle.
It seems that the chief complaint of Chavez and Thernstrom is that the case – one incident at one polling place on Election Day in 2008 -- is a relatively minor one. And to some extent I agree with them. Compared to the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan, threats from Iran, concerns about Pakistan, unprecedented deficits, economic instability, European fiscal crises – this story isn’t on the same level. But it nonetheless deserves much of the coverage it is getting from Fox News (and from THE WEEKLY STANDARD) and merits far more serious consideration from the mainstream media.
The facts of the case are relatively simple. Two men were captured on a video standing outside a polling place in a black Philadelphia neighborhood on Election Day in 2008. One of the men had a nightstick, if an unclear agenda — though a member of the black nationalist New Black Panther Party, he had earlier professed loathing for the Democratic "puppet" candidate, Barack Obama, who went on to overwhelmingly carry that precinct.
Three Republican poll monitors filed complaints of intimidation — itself a federal crime — but no voters attested to being turned away. The Justice Department, while Bush was still president, investigated the incident and later, after Obama took office, decided that "the facts and the law did not support pursuing" the claims against the party and against a second, unarmed man, Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said.
That’s a fine summary, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. There is much more to the case – and it would have doubtless triggered breathless investigations from the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets had similar things occurred under a Republican administration.
There is no question about the fact that voter intimidation took place. Not only are there numerous eyewitness accounts, one of the NBP members was videotaped at the front of the polling station wielding a baton. That “no voters attested to being turned away” is meaningless. Voter intimidation, as Smith allows, is against the law. Period. And it’s certainly possible that some voters, upon seeing a NBP member with a nightstick, simply turned and left without saying anything.
But it’s not the New Black Panther angle that makes the story interesting. It’s what happened at the Justice Department afterward.
Political appointees at the DOJ reached into an ongoing prosecution, took what would have been a certain conviction – on a default judgment – and effectively reversed it. (One of the NBP members received a tap on the wrist – a punishment that doesn’t quite count as a slap on the wrist.) So political appointees overruled career lawyers on a sensitive legal issue and did so despite clear evidence of a violation of law. That alone would normally get reporters interested. And there’s more.
J. Christian Adams, one of the career lawyers at Justice, resigned from his position in order to tell his story. Adams, a conservative, has provided – in public and on the record – an exhaustive account of the politicizing of the law at the Department of Justice. The facts he has presented have not been contradicted. Indeed, the only response the Justice Department has had to the detailed accusations Adams has made is to point out that he is a conservative.
There’s more still. There is reason to believe that senior Justice Department officials have offered misleading testimony about the facts of the case. Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, told the Civil Rights Commission and Congress that he was unaware of claims that the Civil Rights Division under Attorney General Eric Holder is unwilling to pursue cases in which a minority is not the victim. But Adams claims that he and two other career attorneys told Perez just that – one day before Perez said he’d never heard such a thing.
So it’s not that “the Justice Department” decided that “the facts and the law did not support pursing” the claims. The career attorneys in the voting rights division argued strongly – and believe to this day – that the facts and the law did support pursuing those claims. They were simply overruled by the Obama administration’s political appointees.
In sum, the facts of the case are simple. New Black Panther members were caught on videotape violating the law. The Justice Department had won a default judgment in the case. Obama administration political appointees rejected that victory in favor of a non-punishment punishment. A DOJ voting rights attorney resigned to tell his story. And it is possible – perhaps likely – that Obama political appointees did not tell the truth.
How is that not a story?