Posts Tagged ‘Voting Rights’
Friday, September 24th, 2010

A federal prosecutor who urged pursuing a controversial voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party defied Justice Department orders not to appear on Friday before a federal commission.

Christopher Coates, who was chief of the Civil Rights Division Voting Section, told members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez and other DOJ officials gave inaccurate statements on the handling of the case, which involved members of an anti-white fringe group who stood outside a majority-black polling place wearing military clothing in November 2008.

The prosecutor said the Civil Rights Division, led by then-acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King, was opposed to the enforcement of voting rights laws when there was suspected discrimination against whites. Coates said the decisions made on the New Black Panthers case led to a “travesty on justice.”

Christopher Coates (photo by Andrew Ramonas / Main Justice)

“Quite simply, if incorrect representations are going to successfully thwart inquiry into the systemic problems regarding race-neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by the Civil Rights Division – problems that were manifested in the DOJ’s disposition of the New Black Panther Party case – that end is not going to be furthered or accomplished by my sitting silently by at the direction of my supervisors while incorrect information is provided,” said Coates, who is now at the South Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office. “I do not believe that I am professionally, ethically, legally, much less, morally bound to allow such a result to occur.”

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights subpoenaed Coates and former DOJ trial attorney J. Christian Adams as part of its investigation into the DOJ’s handling of the New Black Panthers case. The DOJ said it would not allow Coates or Adams to appear before the commission, citing a longstanding policy that prevents frontline attorneys from testifying. Adams, who resigned earlier this year over the case, testified before the commission in July, saying the DOJ purposely passed up cases against blacks suspected of voting rights infractions.

Director Joseph H. Hunt of the DOJ Civil Division Federal Programs branch wrote in a letter to commission general counsel David Blackwood that Coates is not “an appropriate witness” to testify about current DOJ decision making. Perez was the only DOJ official who was allowed to appear before the commission.

Perez, who was not at the DOJ during the final disposition of the case, defended the handling of the case in May when he testified before the commission.

“This is a case about career people disagreeing with career people,” Perez said in May. He added that it show the “robust interaction” that is an element of the typical daily life of the Justice Department.

DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine said earlier this month that his office will examine how the Civil Rights Division enforces voting rights laws, after Republican Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas and Frank Wolf of Virginia expressed concern about the handling of the New Black Panthers case. Fine, however, said he would look at the Voting Section’s enforcement of laws “over time,” suggesting his probe would also examine allegations of politicization during the George W. Bush administration.

At the hearing Friday, Coates said there was “widespread” opposition in the DOJ to his successful 2005 prosecution of a black Democratic Party official in Noxubee County, Miss., which was the first time a case was filed under the Voting Rights Act for discrimination against white voters.

“In my opinion, this disposition of the Panther case was ordered because the people calling the shots in May 2009 were angry at the filing of the [2005] case and angry at the filing of the Panther case,” Coates said. “That anger was the result of their deep-seated opposition to the equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act against racial minorities and for the protection of white voters, who have been discriminated against.”

The prosecutor said he asked to transfer to South Carolina for an 18-month assignment in late 2009, after “considerable conflict” between himself and Civil Rights Division officials, including King and her deputy, Steve Rosenbaum. He said he became Voting Section “chief only in name” by fall 2009.

“If Senator [John] McCain had won the election and … his people let me in as chief of the Voting Section and there had been good relations between us, then I would have stayed on as chief of the Voting Section awhile longer,” Coates said.


In an e-mailed statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler called the commission’s investigation “thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.” She also noted a Justice Department Inspector General’s report, which found the Civil Rights Division during the previous administration was overly politicized

Her full statement is embedded below.

“As even one Republican member of the commission has acknowledged, this so-called investigation is thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.

The Department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved. We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation. We continue to work with voters, communities, and local law enforcement to ensure that Americans can vote free from intimidation, coercion or threats.

Let’s not forget the context in which these allegations are being made.  The politicization that occurred in the Civil Rights Division in the previous administration has been well documented by the Inspector General, and it was a disgrace to the great history of the division. We have changed that. We have reinvigorated the Civil Rights Division and ensured that it is actively enforcing the American people’s civil rights, and it is clear that not everyone supports that. We are committed to enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws, and we are going to continue to do so without respect to politics.”

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Georgia will go to court over a voter verification law that cannot go into effect without Department of Justice or court approval, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Political Insider blog reported Tuesday.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said the state plans to file a lawsuit seeking clearance for a state law that has twice failed to pass muster with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

“The State of Georgia will no longer watch the Obama Justice Department play politics with our election processes and protections,” Kemp said in a statement. “The Justice Department is denying Georgia’s legal requirement to verify the information provided by new voter registration applicants.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires Georgia and several other states to secure permission, known as pre-clearance, from the DOJ or to obtain a favorable judgment in the D.C. U.S. District Court before changes affecting state voting procedures can go into affect.

The Georgia law at issue requires new voters to undergo a background check that uses information from two databases that contain driver’s license information and Social Security numbers to verify citizenship.

Kemp said he also would seek approval in the suit for a second law, passed last year, that would require voters to present one of several forms of identification verifying U.S. citizenship in order to register to vote.

In May 2009, the DOJ Civil Rights Division informed the state of Georgia that it could not approve the database law because it unfairly burdened a disproportionate number of minorities.

In a letter to Kemp dated Monday, DOJ Civil Rights Division chief Thomas Perez said the DOJ had not changed its position on the program and noted that the state has not yet to submit requested information on both programs.

“[Our] review indicates that the state has not provided any additional information or arguments related to the original voter registration verification program …to support [your] request that the objection to the original program be withdrawn,” Perez wrote. “In light of these considerations, I remain unable to conclude that the state of Georgia has carried out its burden of showing that the original [program] has neither a discriminatory purpose nor a discriminatory effect.”

This post has been corrected from an earlier version.

Friday, November 20th, 2009

The Justice Department is working to bring “lasting change” in how it handles American Indian issues, according to written testimony from Attorney General Eric Holder submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Holder highlighted various efforts to reach out to American Indians, including the creation of the Nations Leadership Council, which will be composed of tribal 12 leaders, who will meet twice a year to advise the Attorney General on issues affecting Indian country. The Attorney General first announced his decision to establish the council at a DOJ tribal listening session in Minnesota last month.

“By statute and because of its government-to-government relationship with tribes, the United States has a legal duty and moral obligation to address violent crime in Indian country and to assist tribes in their efforts to provide for safe tribal communities,” Holder said in his written testimony. “The Department takes this obligation seriously and is working actively with tribes and Federal agencies to improve all aspects of law enforcement in Indian country.”

Holder said crime in Indian country is “dire.” DOJ is already working with tribal communities to improve public safety and is reassessing its grants to tribal courts, according to the Attorney General.

“Although we have already begun to take action to improve the Department’s
effectiveness in addressing our responsibilities toward Native Americans, a great deal more must be done,” Holder said. “We are working to ensure that these discussions with the tribes will provide the foundation for lasting change in this area.”

The Attorney General also said the Justice Department is improving its efforts to enforce voting rights laws in Indian country. He said the Civil Rights Division intends to bring a suit against Shannon County, S.D., for allegedly failing to defend the voting rights of members of the Lakota tribe, who have limited English proficiency. This would be the first case to defend American Indian voting rights since the Bill Clinton administration, according to Holder.

American Indians could be a pivotal voting block for President Barack Obama, if he runs for reelection in 2012. American Indians tend to vote for Democrats, according to Laura Harris, executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, a non-profit American Indian advocacy group, and could provide critical votes for Obama in Western swing states like South Dakota.

We reported earlier month about the significance of the American Indian vote in an article about DOJ Tax Division nominee Mary L. Smith, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation and has the support of several tribal leaders.

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission is considering holding public hearings to investigate the disputed Black Panthers voter intimidation case, Main Justice has learned.

Members of the New Black Panther Party

Members of the New Black Panther Party

A plan circulated last month by the commission envisions possibly one hearing in Philadelphia, where members of the militant New Black Panther Party were accused of intimidating voters by standing outside a polling place last November in quasi-military garb, one of them holding a night stick, according to a document reviewed by Main Justice.

Todd Gaziano (Heritage Foundation)

Todd Gaziano

Another hearing is tentatively slated in Washington early next year, and would seek to call current and former Justice Department officials to testify.

The hearings would keep in the public eye a controversial and racially tinged case that has already been a significant distraction for the new Obama Justice Department.

“More oversight is a good thing,” independent Commissioner Todd Gaziano, an official with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in an interview.

But Francisco-based Michael Yaki, one of two Democrats on the Civil Rights Commission, criticized the continued spotlight on the case. ”This is basically going to be a partisan kangaroo court, convened by my partisan colleagues,” Yaki said.

Michael Yaki

Michael Yaki

Conservatives have objected to the Obama DOJ’s decision in May to dismiss the case against the New Black Panther Party and two of its members, and the controversy contributed to a delay in confirming President Obama’s choice to head the Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez.

The case was filed in January, in the waning days of the Bush administration. But after the Black Panthers failed to contest the allegations, then-acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King reviewed the matter. She found the evidence weak and recommended dropping the charges, DOJ officials have said. There were First Amendment concerns about pursuing a lawsuit against the men based in part on their dress, and one of the accused Black Panthers — Jerry Jackson — was a certified Democratic poll watcher, DOJ officials have said.

The Justice Department did obtain an injunction against defendant, Minister King Samir Shabazz, who held the night stick outside the majority-black polling station in Philadelphia.

In September the commission — composed of four Republicans, two independents with conservative affiliations, and two Democrats — reviewed plans for an investigation and hearings.

The plan includes gathering depositions or other information from Bartle Bull, a 1960s-era civil rights lawyer who said in an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly that he heard one of the Black Panthers say, “Now you’ll see what it is like to be ruled by a black man, cracker;”  poll watchers Larry and Angela Counts and Chris Hill; the independent journalist working for the local Republican Party, Stephen R. Morse, who videotaped the Black Panthers in what became a YouTube hit; and the local police officers who responded to calls on election day from white Republican poll watchers concerned about the Black Panthers’ presence.

Bartle Bull

Bartle Bull

The panel would also seek to interview the defendants in the case, including Malik Zulu Shabazz, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Black Panthers. The voice mail at the New Black Panther Party headquarters is full, and no one has answered the phone in repeated attempts to contact the organization.

The commission might also seek depositions from other current DOJ officials, including Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, the department’s No. 3 official who signed off on King’s recommendation to dismiss the suit; King; Diana K. Flynn, chief of the civil Appellate Section; and Christopher Coats, Voting Rights Section chief.

The envisioned hearings in Washington would also likely pit Bush-era Civil Rights Division officials, who have been accused of politicizing the division, against Obama DOJ officials working under the first black Attorney General, Eric Holder, who has said he wants to return the division to its “historic mission” of enforcing anti-discrimination laws to protect minorities.

Commission Chairman Gerald Reynolds did not respond to requests for comment placed through commission spokeswoman Lenore Ostrowsky.

The case also has many racial overtones. The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified the New Black Panther Party (which is not affiliated with the 1960s-era Black Panthers founded by Huey Newton) as a hate group for its anti-white rhetoric. And King, the career civil rights division lawyer who recommended dismissing the charges, is black. But most of the accusers are white, and the case was signed off on by then-acting Civil Rights Division chief Grace Chung Becker, who failed to win Senate confirmation after Democrats questioned her commitment to enforcing discrimination laws on behalf of minorities.

Moreover, Bartle Bull’s charge that one of the Black Panthers used a racial slur against whites while invoking the impending election of Barack Obama — the nation’s first black president — has been further grist for the mill, mostly among conservative commentators.

We are seeking comment from the Justice Department and will update this report if we receive a response. In the past, DOJ spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler has said: “We are committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting anyone exercising his or her right to vote.”

Below is the You Tube video of  police arriving at the Philadelphia polling station last November:

Friday, July 31st, 2009

The Washington Times’s Jerry Seper reports that Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli approved a recommendation by Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King to drop voter intimidation charges against members of the militant New Black Panthers.


(Note to DOJ Public Affairs staff: I’m being sarcastic).

What’s this Black Panther matter about? You can read our previous reports here and here, or I can just tell you: It’s about Republicans trying to portray the Obama Justice Department as politicized. You know, the way Democrats said the Bush Justice Department was politicized.

The Obama DOJ is highly political, yes. But politicized, as in Brad Schlozman politicized? No.

The Washington Times says unnamed line attorneys in the Civil Rights Division worked for five months to build the voter intimidation case against members of the militant black power group, who were videotaped in paramilitary uniforms and brandishing a nightstick at a Philadelphia polling place last fall.

But King, who’s been acting head of the division since January, told Perrelli she had “concerns” about the case during  a regular review meeting, the Times reported. King recommended some of the charges be dismissed, and Perrelli agreed.

I don’t know anything about the seriousness of the alleged offenses, or the strength of the case. But it does seem these unnamed line attorneys were a source for the Times’s article. So, who are they? I suspect they were Bush-era ideologues, but I don’t know. Tips welcome at

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is slated to meet with Justice Department officials tomorrow about the dismissal of voter-intimidation charges against members of the militant New Black Panthers, according to a news release from Smith’s office.

A Washington Times article today said front-line prosecutors recommended that DOJ continue to pursue the case. But Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, a political appointee, approved the dismissal after career Civil Rights Division supervisors recommended that DOJ drop its charges against the New Black Panthers, the article said.

DOJ has said politics did not play a role in the case dismissal, noting that a career attorney had the final say in the lawsuit dismissal. Republicans have been trying to get political mileage the incident, and they have the backing of a chorus of right-wing bloggers.

Lamar Smith (Gov)

Lamar Smith (Gov)

The ranking member and other House Republicans wrote in a letter to Inspector General Glenn Fine that DOJ has not not responded to previous letters from Smith and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) questioning the dismissal. The Republicans wrote in the letter that probing the dismissal should be a priority. Read our previous post here.

DOJ declined to let career attorneys who oversaw the case testify before Congress, the news release said.

The initial DOJ complaint for the Black Panthers case said Malik Zulu Shabazz, Minister King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson brandished weapons and used “coercion, threats and intimidation” to harass voters, both black and white, at a Philadelphia polling place last Nov. 4. The defendants wore “military-style uniforms” including black berets and combat boots, the complaint said.

The department essentially won the case when the defendants failed to contest it. But DOJ decided to file for dismissal of the case instead of getting a default judgment. The dismissal did not extend to one defendant, King Samir Shabazz. Read the DOJ’s filing here. Read our original report on the “controversy” here.

Friday, July 10th, 2009

The US Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) is scheduled to vote this morning on the nomination of former voting section lawyer Hans Von Spakovsky to the State Advisory Committee for Virginia, reports TPMMuckraker.

The advisory committee is tasked with, as its name implies, advising the commission, which among other things, investigates complaints alleging that citizens are being deprived of their right to vote.

Todd Gaziano

Todd Gaziano

Spakovsky was actually hired by the commission last August as a consultant and temporary full-time employee at the behest of Commissioner Todd Gaziano.  Gaziano told TPMMuckraker that he was also one of the people who recommended Spakovsky for the volunteer position with the advisory committee.  Gaziano is the Director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and has served in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

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.  As a matter of fact, it was then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) that put a hold on his Senate confirmation proceeding, prompting Gaziano to call Obama’s opposition “nothing more than fear-mongering with potential liberal voters.”

Han Von Spakovsky (courtesy Heritage Foundation)

Hans Von Spakovsky

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.

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

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.

Han Von Spakovsky (courtesy Heritage Foundation)

Han Von Spakovsky (courtesy Heritage Foundation)

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.

Friday, May 29th, 2009

The Department of Justice is disputing a Washington Times report claiming that Obama administration political appointees overruled career Civil Rights Division attorneys in dismissing a voter-intimidation lawsuit against members of the militant Black Panthers. In an editorial, the Times expressed dismay the story hadn’t been “front-page news.” 

In a statement issued by Civil Rights Division spokesman Alejandro Miyar, the DOJ said:

Contrary to the report in the Washington Times, a career attorney in the Civil Rights Division made the final decision to dismiss charges against three of the defendants in this case following a thorough review that determined the facts and the law did not support pursuing the claims in this case

Miyar did not identify the career attorney, but it’s undoubtedly one of the DOJ lawyers listed on the motion to dismiss below (keep reading, scroll down).

The Black Panther incident at a Philadelphia polling station last Nov. 4 had become fodder for Fox News. View their report here:

The Justice Department had already effectively won the case when the defendants failed to contest it. The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, wrote a letter to the DOJ yesterday protesting the decision to drop the charges.

The DOJ complaint said Malik Zulu Shabazz, Minister King Samir Shabazz, and Jerry Jackson brandished weapons and used “coercion, threats and intimidation” to harass voters, both black and white, at a Philadelphia polling place last Nov. 4.  The defendants wore “military-style uniforms” including black berets and combat boots, the complaint said.

Read the complaint here

Grace Chung Becker (gov)

Grace Chung Becker (gov)

The complaint was signed by Grace Chung Becker, Acting Assistant Attorney General Civil Rights Division; Christopher Coates, chief of the Voting Section; J. Christian Adams, an attorney in the Voting Section. The names of then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Robert Popper, deputy chief of the Voting Section, were also on the complaint, though without their signatures.

A 2008 New York Times editorial criticized Becker during her confirmation hearings as having taken “stands that undermine civil rights.” She was never confirmed by the Senate.

Now, Loretta King is the Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. On May 15, the DOJ moved to dismiss the charges against Jackson and Malik Zulu Shabazz without prejudice, but not against the third defendant, King Samir Shabazz. King’s name was on the motion to dismiss, along with Coates, Popper and Adams. Voting Section attorney Spencer R. Fisher was

DOJ spokesman Miyar told the Washington Times the department was “successful in obtaining an injunction that prohibits the defendant who brandished a weapon outside a Philadelphia polling place from doing so again. Claims were dismissed against the other defendants based on a careful assessment of the facts and the law.”

This story was updated from its original version to reflect the Department of Justice’s statement rebutting the Washington Times report.

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Former Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales appeared together at a public Q&A session led by NBC and MSNBC legal analyst Dan Abrams at the American Jewish University on April 27. A transcript of the session was published last night on the Daily Beast.

Some highlights:

Gonzales on waterboarding and the Office of Legal Counsel memos authorizing it: “Was it torture, when that advice was given? No. Were the interrogations harsh? Yes. Did they save lives? Absolutely.”

Gonzales on a hypothetical about whether it’s proper to remove a U.S. Attorney who refuses to pursue a partisan political prosecution: “If it was to interfere with ongoing prosecution or to punish a U.S. attorney for failing to prosecute someone when there’s no reason not to—that would be improper.

Gonzales on whether White House pressure on a U.S. Attorney to pursue voting fraud cases (a strategy Democrats contend Republicans use to suppress the vote) would be improper: “What  do you mean politically charged cases? For example, if you’re saying one of the president’s priorities is voter fraud. And if we have U.S. attorneys who say “I don’t care about voter fraud, I don’t care what the president thinks, I’m not going to prosecute those kinds of cases,” I think it would be legitimate to replace him. They serve at the pleasure of the president.”

Gonzales on whether he squelched a DOJ national security investigation into Rep. Jane Harman because he needed the House Intelligence Committee Democrat’s support for warrantless wiretapping: “ I’m not going to comment publicly whether or not there was or was not or is an investigation. I will say that I would not interfere with an investigation for an improper reason. And that’s all I can say about that.”