This article has been corrected.
The Justice Department finally acceded to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ request for testimony, sending Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez on Friday to answer the commission’s questions about the DOJ’s handling of a 2008 voter intimidation case in Philadelphia.
In the roughly 90-minute hearing, Perez defended the department’s actions and said the dispute was primarily between career lawyers.
On election day in November 2008, members of the New Black Panther Party dressed in military garb and stood outside a Philadelphia polling place. A career lawyer, who was allegedly hired during the Bush administration for his conservative background, pursued a voter intimidation case against the men and the party.
After the Obama administration took office, the department dropped the case against all but one of the defendants and obtained an injunction against a man who carried a nightstick. Congressional Republicans cried foul, and the conservative-controlled U.S. Commission on Civil Rights took up the case, holding hearings including one last month at which members of the New Black Panther Party showed up.
Although Perez was not at the Justice Department when the decision was made to drop the case, he has dealt with the fallout since his confirmation. Apart from a handful of tense exchanges with two of the commissioners, Perez’s appearance Friday was much more subdued than the previous hearing which featured several Republican poll watchers from Philadelphia.
In his opening statement, Perez said that the areas the commission was focusing on “represent just a small part of the department’s work to enforce federal voting laws.”
Perez acknowledged his disagreements with various members of the commission on different issues, but kept up a diplomatic demeanor.
“I’m here today because I have great respect for the institution of the Civil Rights Commission,” Perez said.
Perez maintained there were no alternative motivations behind the decision to drop the case, a judgment made by then-Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Loretta King.
“This is a case about career people disagreeing with career people,” Perez said, noting that it demonstrates the “robust interaction” that is part of daily life at the Justice Department.
Perez also defended the Justice Department’s refusal to turn over some documents to the commission. Those documents revealed internal deliberations about the case, he said, and the Justice Department has a longstanding tradition of protecting the internal debates and pre-decisional discussions of frontline attorneys from outside scrutiny.
“They shouldn’t be wondering ‘Will it show up in a Powerpoint presentation tomorrow?’” said Perez.
The case was primarily pushed by a career attorney who was hired by the Justice Department during the Bush administration amid a process the department’s Inspector General concluded was improperly politicized. That attorney’s lawyer argued he was required to testify, but the Justice Department did not allow him to do so.
Pressed by Republican Commissioner Todd Gaziano, Perez agreed that voting rights laws should be enforced in a race neutral manner.
During Friday’s hearing, Perez’s most heated back and forth came when he was questioned by Gaziano and Commissioner Gail Heriot, who switched her affiliation from Republican to independent during the Bush administration, allowing the commission to work around a law that mandated no more than four commissioners below to any one party.
Heriot asked Perez about the injunction obtained against one member of the Black Panther party, who had carried a night stick. When Perez attempted to answer, she interrupted.
“Dah, dah, dah, dah, I’m asking the questions,” Heriot said. “I’m a remedies teacher, this is what I do, I teach remedies,” she said, adding that she would fail a student who used the logic the Justice Department used.
Perez pushed back at interruptions from Gaziano. “You’re not giving me a chance to answer your question, and if you want to keep interrupting, that is your prerogative,” Perez said.
Heriot also asked why a more expansive injunction was not sought against the man. She worried that access to public transportation could allow him to roam around surrounding counties intimidating voters.
“It’s easy for him to just hop on a bus,” she said. “He’s not so stupid that he doesn’t know just how to hop on a bus.”
“Well he could go to New Jersey I guess, so should we expand it to New Jersey?” asked Perez.
“Yes!” said Gaziano and Heriot simultaneously. Gaziano later demanded that a special prosecutor be appointed to look into the case.
Abigail Thernstrom, the a conservative commissioner who disagrees with the focus on this case, called the New Black Panther Party a dysfunctional fringe group. She said she was frustrated that the commission was making the event the focus of its entire report for the year of 2010, especially when reports from previous years on issues like immigration have yet to be published.
Democratic Commissioner Michael Yaki said the commissions focus on the case was making it a laughingstock, and that the conservative commissioners where looking to create a “Whitewater-esque conspiracy that isn’t going to get us anywhere and is only going to undermine the credibility of the commission.”
“When you look at what happened during the Bush administration, when you look at the fact that they declined [to prosecute] people with guns intimidating Latino voters, that they declined [to prosecute] people who interviewed elderly black voters in their homes in Mississippi…where this commission has turned a blind eye to Katrina, turned a blind eye to so many other issues, but somehow we’re going to find fault with the Justice Department on this partisan issue is the height of hypocrisy,” said Yaki.
The 2010 Enforcement Report by the commission, which centers of the New Black Panther Party case, is expected to be released ahead of the mid-term elections.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote to Commissioner Michael Yaki. The quote was from Commissioner Todd Gaziano.