President Obama's Justice Department continues to stonewall inquiries about why it dropped a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party.
The episodewhich Bartle Bull, a former civil rights lawyer and publisher of the left-wing Village Voice, calls "the most blatant form of voter intimidation I've ever seen"began on Election Day 2008. Mr. Bull and others witnessed two Black Panthers in paramilitary garb at a polling place near downtown Philadelphia. (Some of this behavior is on YouTube.)
One of them, they say, brandished a nightstick at the entrance and pointed it at voters and both made racial threats. Mr. Bull says he heard one yell "You are about to be ruled by the black man, cracker!"
In the first week of January, the Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party and three of its members, saying they violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by scaring voters with the weapon, uniforms and racial slurs. In March, Mr. Bull submitted an affidavit at Justice's request to support its lawsuit.
When none of the defendants filed any response to the complaint or appeared in federal district court in Philadelphia to answer the suit, it appeared almost certain Justice would have prevailed by default. Instead, the department in May suddenly allowed the party and two of the three defendants to walk away. Against the third defendant, Minister King Samir Shabazz, it sought only an injunction barring him from displaying a weapon within 100 feet of a Philadelphia polling place for the next three yearsaction that's already illegal under existing law.
There was outrage over the decision among Congressional Republicans, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Divisionespecially after it was learned one of the defendants who walked was Jerry Jackson, a member of Philadelphia's 14th Ward Democratic Committee and a credentialed poll watcher for the Democratic Party last Election Day.
Then the Washington Times reported on July 30 that six career lawyers at Justice who had recommended continuing to pursue the case were overruled by Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrellia top administration political appointee. One of the career attorneys, Appellate Chief Diana Flynn, had urged in an internal memo that a judgment be pressed against the defendants to "prevent the paramilitary style intimidation of voters" in the future.
Justice spokesman Alejandro Miyar says the dismissal was "based on a careful assessment of the facts and the law." But Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), has been asking for more information. Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch, for example, claims in a July 13 letter to Mr. Wolf that charges against the New Black Panther Party itself were dropped because there wasn't "evidentiary support" to prove they "directed" the intimidation. But Mr. Wolf notes in a letter sent to Justice that one defendant, Black Panther Party Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz, said on Fox News just after the election that his activities at the polling station were part of a nationwide effort. Mr. Shabazz added that the Black Panther activities in Philadelphia were justified due to "an emergency situation."
Mr. Wolf's demands that Justice make the career attorneys on the case available for questions have been rebuffed. He also wants the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings. A spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers was noncommittal as to whether any hearing would be held.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted on Aug. 7 to send a letter to Justice expanding its own investigation and demanding more complete answers. "We believe the Department's defense of its actions thus far undermines respect for rule of law," its letter stated. It noted "the peculiar logic" of one Justice argument, that defendants' failure to show up in court was a reason for dismissing the case: "Such an argument sends a perverse message to wrongdoersthat attempts at voter suppression will be tolerated so long as the persons who engage in them are careful not to appear in court to answer the government's complaint."
The commission noted that it could subpoena witnesses and documents if Justice doesn't better explain its actions.
President Obama needs to clear the air. As a former law professor who specialized in voting rights, he is aware of how important even-handed application of the law is to election integrity. In 2007, then-Sen. Obama introduced a bill to protect Americans from tactics that intimidate voters. It also increased the criminal penalty for voter intimidation to five years in prison from one year.
"There is no place for politics in this debate," he testified before Mr. Conyers's committee in March, 2007. "Both parties at different periods in our history have been guilty in different regions of preventing people from voting for a tactical advantage. We should be beyond that."
One way to get there is for Mr. Obama to insist his Justice Department reinstate the Black Panther case or provide a full explanation for why it was dropped.