Back Channels: Panther case dismissal needs explanation

Attorney General Eric Holder was in Kabul last week to talk to Afghans about fighting corruption.
Attorney General Eric Holder was in Kabul last week to talk to Afghans about fighting corruption.

A former employee calls Justice hostile to race-neutral, equal enforcement of the law.

Posted: July 04, 2010

For more than a year, Attorney General Eric Holder has failed to adequately explain why his Justice Department dropped a slam-dunk voter-intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party.

His department's answers to inquiries have been incomplete and unsatisfactory. Career attorneys involved in the case have not been available for questioning, even when subpoenaed.

Now, one lawyer is speaking up - and making damning allegations against the Justice Department.

J. Christian Adams, who was a Justice Department voting-rights lawyer until he resigned last month, is scheduled to testify before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Tuesday. At issue are the events of Election Day 2008 in Philadelphia.

Here's how a Justice Department complaint filed in January 2009 described those events:

Samir Shabazz, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the New Black Panther Party, and party member Jerry Jackson were "deployed" in front of a Fairmount Avenue polling place in "military style uniforms."

Shabazz brandished a nightstick. He "pointed the weapon at individuals, menacingly tapped it [in] his other hand, or menacingly tapped it elsewhere." Both Shabazz and Jackson leveled "racial threats and racial insults at both black and white individuals," and they "made menacing and intimidating gestures, statements, and movements directed at individuals who were present to aid voters."

The two men, the party, and its national chairman were named in the complaint. Since none responded, the case was all but won.

However, in May 2009, the Justice Department dropped claims against all but Shabazz, who was merely ordered not to take a weapon to a Philadelphia polling place through 2012.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), a Philly native, has repeatedly called for an explanation. The Civil Rights Commission has held hearings on the case. In May, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez told the commission that the case had been re-reviewed, and the evidence deemed insufficient to proceed.

"That claim is false," Adams, the former Justice lawyer, wrote in the Washington Times last month. "If the actions in Philadelphia do not constitute voter intimidation, it is hard to imagine what would, short of an actual outbreak of violence at the polls."

Adams wrote that the dismissal of the case "was motivated by a lawless hostility toward equal enforcement of the law." As for the re-review, "the lawyers who ordered the dismissal ... did not even read the internal Justice Department memorandums supporting the case and investigation."

What's "most disturbing," Adams wrote, is "the open and pervasive hostility within the Justice Department to bringing civil rights cases against nonwhite defendants on behalf of white victims. Equal enforcement of justice is not a priority of this administration. Open contempt is voiced for these types of cases.

"Some of my coworkers," Adams continued, "argued that the law should not be used against black wrongdoers because of the long history of slavery and segregation. ... Incredibly, after the case was dismissed, instructions were given that no more cases against racial minorities like the Black Panther case would be brought by the [Justice Department's] Voting Section."

In a follow-up article for the website Pajamas Media on Monday, Adams cited other cases, in Texas and Connecticut, showing the department's "hostility toward race-neutral enforcement of the civil rights laws."

The Justice Department fired back last week, saying in a statement that " ... it is regrettable when a former department attorney distorts the facts and makes baseless allegations to promote his or her agenda."

I understand that some view the Panther incident as an unimportant blip on a historic election day. I get not wanting to make too much of an insignificant gang of thugs. But the message the Justice Department sends about hate groups and equal enforcement is important.

One of the department's own, Christopher Coates, said in January, "America is increasingly a multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural society. For such a diverse group of people to be able to live and function together in a democratic society, there have to be certain common standards that we are bound by and that protect us all. ... For the Department of Justice to enforce the Voting Rights Act only to protect members of certain minority groups breaches the fundamental guarantee of equal protection. ..."

The remarks of Coates, a former ACLU lawyer, were reported by National Review Online when he stepped down as Voting Section chief. In his piece Monday, Adams suggests that Coates, who also worked on the Panther case, was transferred because of his "race-neutral enforcement" of the law.

Coates is still with the department, so he won't be with Adams at the witness table Tuesday. But the attorney general should be.


Contact Kevin Ferris at kf@phillynews.com or 215-854-5305.

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