A federal judge last week endorsed a conservative watchdog group’s view that the Justice Department wasn’t forthcoming about whether political appointees were involved in a decision to dismiss a 2009 voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party.
The evidence cited by Judge Reggie Walton in the District of Columbia in a ruling on attorney’s fees for the watchdog group concern events already extensively discussed in a March 17, 2011 investigative report by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility that concluded the political appointees acted properly.
The group Judicial Watch sued the Justice Department to release Black Panther case-related email pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act. In his July 23 opinion on whether DOJ should reimburse Judicial Watch for attorney fees, Walton wrote that some of the emails ”appear to contradict Assistant Attorney General [Thomas] Perez’s testimony that political leadership was not involved in that decision”
Judicial Watch’s FOIA lawsuit therefore had a public benefit, and the group should be awarded $1,216.20 in fees and $350 in costs, Walton wrote.
“The documents reveal that political appointees within DOJ were conferring about the status and resolution of the New Black Panther Party case in the days preceding the DOJ’s dismissal of claims in that case,” Walton wrote in his ruling. “…Surely the public has an interest in documents that cast doubt on the accuracy of government officials’ representations regarding the possible politicization of agency decision-making.”
The judge said emails among Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights Steve Rosenbaum, Deputy Associate Attorney General Sam Hirsch and Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli appear to indicate an ongoing discussion of the case before the department decided to drop most of it in court.
The judge cited an April 30, 2009, email from Hirsch to Perrelli, with the subject title “Fw: New Black Panther Party Update,” in which Hirsch writes:
I need to discuss this with you tomorrow morning. I’ll send you another email on this shortly.
If you want to discuss it this evening, please let me know which number to call and when.
However, it was already known, thanks to last year’s OPR report on the Panther controversy, that Hirsch and Perrelli had been informed by Rosenbaum of the Black Panthers matter during a routine weekly meeting of Civil Rights Division staff and political appointees on April 30, 2009 – the day the email cited by Walton was sent.
“Perrelli said he instructed Hirsch to keep apprised of the matter, given the disagreement about it within the Division and the fact that it might be a case in which the media was interested,” the OPR report said.
Conservatives within the Civil Rights Division vehemently opposed the decision to drop the case made by the career attorneys then in charge, who came from a traditional liberal civil rights background. One of the conservatives, career line attorney J. Christian Adams, who was hired into the civil service under an improperly politicized process during the George W. Bush administration, later quit the department after he was told not to speak out publicly about the case he’d helped to bring. Adams later became a blogger and speaker at Republican political events, authoring a book accusing the Eric Holder Justice Department of engaging in reverse discrimination against whites.
The OPR report said Perrelli, the Department’s No. 3 official, later instructed the divided Civil Rights Division staff to find a compromise between two “extremes” – dropping the case entirely or seeking the harsh injunctive relief against the Panthers sought by the conservatives.
The department’s civil lawsuit, filed in the waning days of the Bush administration, had alleged two New Black Panther Party members dressed in military-style fatigues had intimidated voters outside a Philadelphia polling place on election day 2008. The allegations were based on accounts from white Republican poll watchers. In dropping most of the case, the department cited the First Amendment free speech rights of Panthers and the fact that no actual voters in the majority-black precinct had complained they were intimidated.
The OPR report says that Loretta King, who became the acting head of the Civil Rights Division during the beginning of President Barack Obama’s administration, and Rosenbaum, her acting deputy, made the call to drop most of the charges, while seeking an injunction against the Panther who’d held a nightstick.
Those decisions were later affirmed by the politically appointed higher-ups in the department, OPR said.