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Questions renew about White House hand in Panther case dismissal

Last week, The Washington Post took the brave step to report on a story that has been news for months. At issue has been circumstantial evidence that the White House and political appointees at the Justice Department are enforcing a doctrine of selective enforcement of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, making decisions to file cases not based on merit but on the basis of the race of the defendant.

In its investigation of the Justice Department’s decision to dismiss a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party and two of its members stemming from an incident at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day 2008, the Post found significant evidence of that an explicit policy of selective enforcement exists at Justice. The latest details add to an unfolding story that has received diligent journalistic attention from Quin Hillyer at The Washington Times and American Spectator, but has been repeatedly kicked to the curb even by the Post’s own staff.

Former keeper of the Post’s “Right Now” blog, Dave Weigel, was openly dismissive of the questions being asked by other journalists. Weigel blogged from an April 2010 hearing on the matter by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission characterizing it as having “far more heat than light.” Later, writing in The Atlantic he suggested that Fox News reporting on the controversy was “minstrelsy, with a fringe moron set up like a bowling pin for Hannity to knock down.”

Despite Weigel’s disapproval, the Philadelphia event has become an indelible visual meme, an image of two African-American men – Maruse Heath and Jerry Jackson – standing in front of the polls, clad in black paramilitary uniforms one of whom brandishes a nightstick, both of whom level menacing gazes at the college student filming their actions. The moment encapsulates the accounts of multiple eyewitnesses who attest that the two men cast racial epithets at white passersby and created a climate of intimidation where many people would come to cast ballots in the presidential election.

When President Obama took office in early 2009, the case against Jackson, Heath and the NBPP was already a going concern at the Justice Department. Voting rights section chief Christopher Coates, who had been hired during the Clinton years after working with the American Civil Liberties Union, made the decision to file charges in the matter knowing that it would create dissent within his department. Neither Heath, nor Jackson, nor Malik Shabazz, the chairman of the NBPP and named defendant in the Justice Department’s case, offered any defense and in early April of 2009 the Philadelphia court hearing the case opened the door for Justice Department attorneys to file a motion for default judgment. But in mid-May, the department elected to dismiss all of the charges except those against Heath, but asking for a narrower injunction on Heath’s polling place visits than was previously requested.

Although assistant attorney general for civil rights Thomas E. Perez told the Washington Post that there was no political involvement in the decision to dismiss, facts place his claim under serious doubt.

A timeline of White House meetings (meticulously documented from White House visitor logs by The Washington Times) attended by high-ranking Obama administration officials, attorneys lobbying for the defendants, and political appointees in the Justice Department civil rights division’s chain of communication, is hard to dismiss.

Put simply, while the defendants in the case were too busy to even appear in court to address the charges against them, the White House was the scene of heavy lobbying efforts on their behalf. Although no evidence yet exists of a quid pro quo, an odor reeks from the affair not unlike the Jersey shore at low tide and bears little resemblance to a sequence of events in which the White House was not taking an active role in affecting the dismissal of the case.

According to the Post’s Friday article, the coup de grâce was delivered after the case’s dismissal. Career attorneys in the voting section received word from on high that cases pertaining to key voting rights laws would not be filed unless minorities were the alleged victims.

A new supervisor, Julie Fernandes, arrived to oversee the voting section, and Coates testified that she told attorneys at a September 2009 lunch that the Obama administration was interested in filing cases – under a key voting rights section – only on behalf of minorities.

“Everyone in the room understood exactly what she meant,” Coates said. “No more cases like the Ike Brown or New Black Panther Party cases.”

Fernandes declined to comment through a department spokeswoman.

Selective enforcement is often an unfortunate by-product of resource-starved divisions of prosecutors, the result of triaging cases with regard to the impact they have on society. But the decision to provide unequal protection from polling place intimidation strikes at the very foundation of society itself.

A policy that determines that some Americans have civil rights with regard to this most critical of political actions while others do not, well, there nothing civil about that at all.

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[Cross-posted by author from Red County.]

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