With Republican unease lingering over a case involving the New Black Panther Party, GOP members of a House subcommittee Wednesday again questioned whether the Justice Department’s enforcement of voting rights laws is race neutral.
Republicans members of the House Judiciary constitution subcommittee said they are worried that Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes told Division lawyers to bring voting rights cases that would benefit minorities. Conservatives have expressed concern that racial bias was at play in the decision to drop most of the charges in a voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party, an anti-white fringe group, in 2009.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division said Fernandes has “categorically denied” directing staffers to only file voting rights cases that would help minorities.
“As I’ve said, and as Ms. Fernandes has reiterated, we make our decisions based on an application of the facts and the law,” Perez said. “We do so in an evenhanded manner.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has sent three letters to the DOJ asking for documents and records from the Civil Rights Division’s January “Redistricting Summit,” in which comments allegedly were made about the Department’s lack of interest in pursuing voting rights cases against minorities.
Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich of the DOJ Office of Legislative Affairs wrote in a letter to Smith that the Department gave the House Judiciary Committee 70 pages of documents related to the training section and would allow the panel to review the remaining papers about the event, including handwritten notes, at the DOJ. The committee also couldn’t disclose the documents to individuals outside of the panel, he wrote.
Smith said the Department’s conditions for examining the remaining documents are “unacceptable.”
“It is improper for the Department to dictate to this committee how it should make use of information that is responsive to a legitimate oversight interest,” Smith said, adding, “It’s time for the Department’s game of hide-and-seek to end and for it to respond and cooperate.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Constitution subcommittee, expressed frustration with the Republicans’ interest in the allegations that the Department’s enforcement of voting rights laws isn’t race neutral and the New Black Panther Party case.
Nadler said continued discussion of the New Black Panther Party case is “disgraceful.” New Black Panther Party members allegedly intimidated voters by wearing military-style clothing outside a polling place in a black Philadelphia neighborhood during the November 2008 election. One of the men held a nightstick.
“We actually face some serious civil rights challenges, and I hope to hear from Mr. Perez on how the Division is working to meet those challenges. It would be nice to have a hearing in which we actually discussed civil rights policy and enforcement.”
The hearing came the same week The National Law Journal and The New York Times reported that the Obama administration is more apt than the George W. Bush administration to fill career Civil Rights Division positions with lawyers who have civil rights backgrounds and connections to liberal organizations. The Bush administration came under fire for hiring conservative lawyers who lacked civil rights experience for career Civil Rights Division jobs. Under federal law, political ideology cannot factor into hiring decisions for career positions, which are permanent.
A 2008 DOJ Inspector General report concluded that the Bush administration Civil Rights Division inappropriately considered applicants’ political affiliations when hiring career employees. Bradley Schlozman, who held top Civil Rights Division posts from 2003 to 2006, including acting Assistant Attorney General, called for hires that were “real Americans,” “right thinking” or “on the team,” the report said.
Of the almost 120 career Civil Rights Division lawyers hired since 2009, at least half had previous jobs at civil rights groups, The National Law Journal reported.
In the Division’s Employment Discrimination, Voting Rights and Appellate sections, around 90 percent of those hired had done civil rights work, according to The Times. Only around 38 percent of the hires for those sections in the Bush administration had civil rights backgrounds. The Obama administration hired about 47 lawyers for those sections and the Bush administration brought on about 72.