A House subcommittee Tuesday heard arguments for and against legislation that would assure that felons regain the right to vote once they have been released from prison.
Under the bill, the Democracy Restoration Act, states would have to permit felons to participate in federal elections once they have left prison.
The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties heard testimony from an academic, a Florida election official and representatives of a number of groups, including the NAACP, the Heritage Foundation and the American Probation and Parole Association.
The measure is sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and 29 cosponsors — most of them members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The findings section of the bill notes that “state disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities” and that, “given current rates of incarceration, approximately one in three of the next generation of African-American men will be disenfranchised at some point during their lifetime.” Hispanics are also disproportionately disenfranchised, according to the findings section of the bill based upon their disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system.
No one representing the Justice Department testified. A DOJ spokesman did not immediately return an e-mail inquiring if the Justice Department supported the proposed legislation. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez has previously said that the Civil Rights Division would fight for disparate impact theory, which he said had been proven in court.
The bill would give the Attorney General the enforcement authority to remedy a violation of the act through civil action. The Bureau of Prisons would be required to notify any individual convicted of a crime under federal law upon their release from jail that they had the right to vote.
The bill faces opposition from conservatives.
Hans A. von Spakovsky, the controversial former counselor to the Civil Rights Division during the Bush administration, argued that the bill “represents an unconstitutional intrusion into the rights of the states. Congress simply does not have the constitutional authority to force states to restore the voting rights of convicted felons,” he said.
Van Spakovsky, now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, acknowledged that some Southern states had tried to use felony voting laws to disenfranchise blacks, “those laws have all been changed and amended.” Spakovsky, a critic of disparate impact theory, said that “criminals lose their right to vote because of their own conscious actions in violating the law, not because of their race.”
In his prepared testimony, Spakovsky implied that Democrats supported the bill because convicted felons would vote for them and it would help them win elections.
Also voicing opposition to the bill was Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity.
The other witnesses, including one convicted felon now enrolled at Yale Law School, testified in support of the measure.
“Today, we have created a society that excludes some five million people from the ballot,” said Andres Idarraga. “This exclusion is at the end of a complicated chain that often begins with poverty and a lack of education, involves the criminal justice system and penal institutions, and often ends in isolation, bitterness and disfranchisement,” he said.
Testimony of other witnesses is available on the committee’s Web site.
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A controversial former official of the George W. Bush administration has been appointed by judges in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County to a three-member electoral board, a move that immediately drew criticism from local Democrats, according to The Washington Post.
Hans A. von Spakovsky, former counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for civil rights and member of the Federal Election Commission under President George W. Bush, was appointed on March 1 to a three-year term on the Fairfax County Electoral Board. The appointment complies with state law that calls for the majority of such boards to be filled by the party of the sitting governor.
According to The Post, the appointment “has set the stage for political acrimony with Democrats, who say his controversial background will only create more tension in already tight local races.”
The Post said that von Spakovsky’s tenures at both the Justice Department and the FEC were marked by sharp criticism from Democrats who asserted that he tried to exert undue political influence on the government’s handling of voter fraud and identification matters.
In an interview with The Post, von Spakovsky said he was asked by Republican Party officials to submit his name after being told they wanted “someone who wouldn’t have a big learning curve.”
“I know how the system works, and I have experience at every level of the election process,” he said.
Most recently, von Spakovsky, now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, targeted the leadership in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in a piece for The National Review.
“Obama’s Civil Rights Division will prosecute cases only depending on ‘what you look like.’ If you are white and you are discriminated against in your job, at the polls, or in seeking equal access to federally funded institutions, the division won’t lift a finger to make sure you’re ‘protected’,” wrote von Spakovsky.
“The overwhelming majority of the individuals who populate the Civil Rights Division have always felt that because they are pursuing a virtuous mission, they are infallible and somehow have license to contravene the law, skirt ethical lines, and participate in acts of deception,” he wrote.
A Republican member of Congress on Tuesday asked the Department of Justice Inspector General’s Office to look into allegations that DOJ officials consulted with the White House before deciding to dismiss voter intimidation charges last May against members of the New Black Panther Party.
In a letter to Inspector General Glenn Fine, Virginia Rep. Frank R. Wolf cited reports in The Washington Times that suggested Associate Attorney General Thomas Perelli visited the White House last spring on several dates that match up with developments in the case.
“I am deeply concerned about allegations that Associate Attorney General Perrelli consulted with the White House counsel’s office in his decision to dismiss this case,” Wolf wrote. “The Washington Times has reported a series of meetings between Mr. Perrelli and the deputy White House counsel corresponding to key dates in the decision to dismiss this case.”
“The pace of these visits immediately slowed following the final dismissal of the case,” Wolf continued. “If true, this represents a dangerous breakdown of the “firewall” policy that former Attorney General Mukasey put in place in 2007 to prevent politicization on active cases.”
Last year, Wolf asked the inspector general’s office to look into the matter, in which the DOJ dismissed most of a case against members of the militant anti-white fringe group, two of whose members stood outside a polling place in Philadelphia in November 2008 in quasi-military garb, one of them holding a nightstick.
Fine instead referred the case to the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility. That investigation is still ongoing. The Justice Department has said there was no evidence of a coordinated voter intimidation campaign and that federal intervention wasn’t warranted. The government did win an injunction against the nightstick-wielding Black Panther.
The allegations in Wolf’s letter mirror those made by a former Bush Justice Department official, Hans von Spakovsky, that the meetings offer ”strong circumstantial evidence” that the White House was involved in the decision to dismiss the charges.
Spakovsky, writing for National Review Online last week, plucked out Perrelli’s appointments in the White House logs and matched them up with the dates of relevant actions in the New Black Panther litigation. The Washington Times wrote a similar piece the same day and later cited von Spakovsky’s piece as “confirmation” that its analysis was correct.
“All of this is circumstantial evidence, of course,” von Spakovsky wrote. “Perhaps all of Perrelli’s meetings had nothing to do with the NBPP case; perhaps Perrelli and the White House officials were discussing the latest Washington Redskins loss. Or perhaps not.”
But the No. 3 Justice could have have discussed any number of issues with the White House during the meetings last April and May such as tribal justice, the on-going negotiations related to the class-action Cobell v. Salazar settlement, making stimulus funds available to Indian County’s criminal justice needs, his trip with other cabinet officials to hard hit “auto communities,” or his testimony before a Senate committee on May 12.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Von Spakovsky’s piece or say what topics Perrelli covered in the White House meetings.
“We don’t respond to conspiracy theories from Hans von Spakovsky,” Justice Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told Main Justice.
Liberal news watch organization Media Matters blasted The Washington Times piece, saying the “editorial relied on falsehoods and distortions.”
The “editorial and accompanying timeline did not contain any reporting that Perrelli discussed the case with White House personnel in the meetings he had at the White House,” Media Matters wrote in an analysis. “Indeed, the Times acknowledged that one-third of the meetings Perrelli had at the White House occurred after the case was resolved.”
Von Spakovsky was a controversial figure in the Justice Department, where he served as a counselor to the assistant attorney general for civil rights from 2003 to 2005. While at the department, von Spakovsky advocated for a Georgia voter identification law that Democratic critics claimed made it harder for low-income and elderly citizens to vote. Then-Sen. Barack Obama was one such critic, writing is 2007 that von Spakovsky made “efforts to undermine voting rights” and had a “record of poor management, divisiveness, and inappropriate partisanship” at the Justice Department.
According to a 2008 Inspector General’s report, von Spakovsky and former DOJ officials John Tanner and Bradley Schlozman took political affiliations into account when reviewing résumés, making recommendations for applicants to be interviewed and conducting interviews for positions at the department. The report concluded that Schlozman violated federal law and that “division managers failed to exercise sufficient oversight to ensure that Schlozman did not engage in inappropriate hiring and personnel practices.” Because of von Spakovsky’s controversial tenure at the Justice Department, Democratic senators later refused to confirm him to a position on the Federal Election Commission.
In addition to the IG letter, Wolf last week penned a missive to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to request time to speak at its Feb. 12 hearing about the New Black Panthers controversy.
Todd Gaziano, a commissioner at the the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who is spearheading the hearing on the Black Panther case, is a frequent collaborator with von Spakovsky, both as a co-author of pieces for National Review Online and as a colleague at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Gaziano hired von Spakovsky as a short term consultant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the summer of 2008. Last August, von Spakovsky was appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ State Advisory Committee for Virginia, where he resides.
At last Friday’s meeting of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, four of the Republican appointed members voted to go into executive session to discuss the case. Abigail Thernstrom abstained and two Democratically appointed members voted against going into the closed session.
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Conservatives continue to attack Attorney General Eric Holder for dropping a voter-intimidation case against two of three members of the militant Black Panthers. Read Michelle Malkin’s harummpf here.
Also chiming in today was Hans A. Von Spakovsky, the former Voting Section lawyer who was at the center of the storm over Bush-era politicization of the Civil Rights Division. Spakovsky has this piece in the Wall Street Journal. Click here to read our previous coverage of the case.
Spakovsky, you may recall, was a sidekick to the controversial former head of the Civil Rights Division, Bradley Schlozman, who caused an uproar with his partisan hiring practices. President Bush gave Spakovsky a recess appointment to the Federal Election Commission, but once the recess appointment expired, the Senate refused to confirm him.
Career Voting Section lawyers led by Joseph Rich, section chief from 1999 to 2005, wrote to Senate Rules Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and ranking member Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) alleging that Spakovsky “played a major role in the implementation of practices which injected partisan political factors into decision-making on enforcement matters and into the hiring process, and included repeated efforts to intimidate career staff.” You can find the letter here.
Spakovsky started off his article today with a few quick paragraphs about Holder’s decision to dismss a voter-intimidation lawsuit against members of the Black Panthers, then went on to spend the next six paragraphs defending the controversial Georgia voter I.D. law that Spakovsky helped bring about, but which the Holder DOJ opposed. The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a challenge to the law, letting it stand.
Here’s how Spakovsky concludes his article in the WSJ:
All of these decisions seriously undermine confidence in the rule of law and our election process. Under the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice is charged with protecting voters, no matter what their racial or ethnic background. Under the Help America Vote Act and the National Voter Registration Act, the department is also charged with securing the integrity of the voter registration process. In just the first five months of this administration Justice seems to be moving as fast as it can to defeat that charge.