by Rep. Frank Wolf
For more than a year, I have been urging the U.S. Department of Justice to release all the documents surrounding the dismissal of U.S. v. New Black Panther Party and to make a genuine attempt to answer the questions asked by members of Congress and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about the case. My requests have been rebuffed at each turn by the department.
As a strong supporter of the Voting Rights Act, I was deeply troubled by Justice’s questionable dismissal of such an important voter intimidation case in Philadelphia, where I grew up and my father was a policeman.
My commitment to voting rights is unquestioned. In 1981, I was the only member—Republican or Democrat—of the Virginia delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives to vote for the Voting Rights Act and was harshly criticized then by the editorial page of the Richmond Times Dispatch, the state’s leading newspaper. I was criticized, too, in 2006 by another newspaper in my district when I supported the act’s reauthorization.
From the beginning, I have asked the question: why did the Justice Department dismiss this serious case? If this is not a clear case of voter intimidation, I do not know what is.
This case was brought in January 2009 by career attorneys in the department’s Civil Rights Division against the New Black Panther Party and several of its members—one of whom brandished a nightstick—for deploying uniformed men to a polling station in Philadelphia on Election Day November 2008 to harass and intimidate voters.
One of the witnesses of the Election Day incident—Bartle Bull—a veteran civil rights activist who served as Bobby Kennedy’s New York campaign manager in 1968, has publicly called this “the most blatant form of voter intimidation” he has ever seen.
The case was proceeding toward a default judgment in favor of the department until it was suddenly withdrawn in May 2009. Sources within the department reported that Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, a political appointee, in conjunction with the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, Loretta King, and her deputy, Steve Rosenbaum, overruled the career attorneys in the Voting Rights section.
The Washington Times reported that the department’s own appellate division sided with the career attorneys in urging the case be allowed to move forward. According to the Appellate Division memos first disclosed in the Times article, Appellate Chief Diana K. Flynn said that “the appropriate action was to pursue the default judgment” and that Justice had made a “reasonable argument in favor of default relief against all defendants.”
Given these troubling disclosures, I have repeatedly called on the attorney general to re-file this civil suit and allow a ruling from the judge based on the merits of the case—not political expediency.
The career trial team should be allowed to bring the case again to allow our nation’s justice system to work as it was intended: impartially and without bias.
Since the dismissal of this case, I have also been deeply concerned about the department’s obstruction of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ investigation into this matter. The commission has an important special statutory responsibility to investigate matters pertaining to the enforcement of civil rights law. In fact, to do so, Congress instilled independent oversight responsibility, including subpoena authority, in statute.
However, the department continues to withhold information from the commission and refuses to comply with the commission’s subpoenas. In fact, the department has ordered its attorneys to ignore the commission’s subpoenas.
Earlier this year, I introduced a Resolution of Inquiry that would have compelled the attorney general to release all requested documents to the Congress. It was defeated on a party-line vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
I have urged the department’s inspector general, Glenn Fine, on multiple occasions to open an investigation into whether improper political influence contributed to the dismissal of this case.
Unfortunately, Mr. Fine continues to maintain willful ignorance, which I believe is an unacceptable abdication of his responsibilities as inspector general.
At my request the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency is now reviewing his actions.
I believe one anecdote, in particular, summarizes the disappointment and frustration of the career attorneys who were inexplicably overruled by the department’s political leadership on this matter.
It is my understanding that the career Voting Section chief, Chris Coates, offered a vigorous defense of the New Black Panther Party case at his going-away luncheon earlier this year. Mr. Coates reportedly stated: “I did my best to enforce all of our voting statutes for all Americans, and I leave here with my soul rested that I did the right thing to the best of my ability.”
The American people deserve the kind of impartial leadership at the Justice Department that will allow this case to go forward again—not the kind of political leadership that has tilted the scales of justice.