Voting Section Chief Out Amid Controversy
By Ryan J. Reilly | December 27, 2009 10:15 pm

Veteran Civil Rights Division attorney Christopher Coates has stepped down as chief of the Voting Section, according to the division’s Web site.

There was no official announcement of the personnel change in the long-troubled section, which most recently has been embroiled in the controversy over the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case. Main Justice noticed the change on the Voting Section Web site.

Taking over for Coates in an acting role is Chris Herren, a deputy chief of the section, according to the Web site.

Coates did not respond to an email seeking comment. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Coates requested an 18-month detail to the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Carolina, where he’ll start in January.

“His new role is the result of conversations Mr. Coates initiated with the division leadership earlier this year,” said Schmaler.

Coates signed off on the controversial voter intimidation complaint against the New Black Panther Party and three of its members, filed in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. The Obama DOJ’s decision to dismiss most of the charges in May has become a political controversy for the administration.

Coates also supervised J. Christian Adams, the career Voting Section attorney who compiled the Black Panther case. Adams, who has a history of conservative advocacy, was hired in 2005 by then-Civil Rights Division official Bradley Scholzman, a Bush political appointee who improperly politicized the hiring process in the division, the department’s Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility found in a joint investigation.

Coates had been listed on the Web site as chief of the Voting Section as late as Dec. 20.

Coates and Adams were subpoenaed last month by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is investigating the Justice Department’s decision to dismiss most charges against members of the anti-white fringe group, two of whom stood in military-style garb outside a Philadelphia polling place in November 2008, one of them holding a nightstick.

A person familiar with the civil rights commission’s investigation told Main Justice that Coates immediately notified his superiors upon learning he had been subpoenaed.

The Justice Department has resisted complying with the conservative-dominated commission’s subpoenas. But Adams has argued to department lawyers that he is obligated to comply.

Coates had been Voting Section chief since January 2008. He replaced John Tanner, who resigned in December 2007  following comments he made about voter identification laws that some lawmakers perceived as racist.

Tanner rebutted liberal criticism of voter ID laws by saying they affected the elderly more than minorities, and that because African-Americans tended to die younger, the ID requirements didn’t have a disproportionate effect on them.

Tanner’s comments led then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to call for his removal. Upon taking over the Voting Section, Coates demoted two of Tanner’s deputy chiefs.

This article was updated to include a response from Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.

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