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Official alleges racially selective enforcement of voting rights cases

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
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New Black Panther intimidation case
  • Justice Department lawyer says some civil rights cases are suppressed
  • Cases against African-Americans are not pursued, says Christopher Coates
  • The Justice Department criticizes the Civil Rights Commission's investigation

Washington (CNN) -- A Justice Department lawyer testified Friday the department does not enforce certain voting law cases when the victims are white, and called the decision to drop a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party "a travesty of justice."

Christopher Coates, who headed the department's Voting Rights section in 2008, said he believes some senior civil rights officials at the Justice Department enforce voting cases "in a racially selective manner."

Coates testified, against the instructions of his Justice Department bosses, before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, saying he felt obligated to correct statements made by the current Voting Rights section chief that race is not a factor in deciding which cases to pursue.

Coates said there has been a long-held hostility by some Justice Department lawyers toward voting rights cases against African-American defendants. One staff researcher "informed me in no uncertain terms that he had not come to the Voting section to sue African-American defendants," Coates testified.

And the election of President Barack Obama "brought to positions of influence and power within the Civil Rights Division many of the very people who had demonstrated hostility to the concept of equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act," Coates said. Among those promoted was a lawyer who, Coates said, had prohibited him from asking job applicants if they would enforce the voting laws in a race-neutral manner.

A Justice Department spokesman Friday afternoon called the Civil Rights Commission's investigation "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," spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said.

The New Black Panther Party case stemmed from an incident on November 4, 2008 -- Election Day -- when two members of the party stood outside a Philadelphia polling station yelling racial slurs. Both men wore paramilitary outfits and black books; one held a nightstick.

No voters filed complaints in the incident, but it was captured on video and appeared on national television.

Coates told the Civil Rights Commission, "White voters also have an interest in being able to go to the polls without having race-haters such as Black Panther King Samir Shabazz -- whose public rhetoric includes such statements as 'kill cracker babies' -- standing at the entrance of the polling place with a billy club in his hand hurling racial slurs."

He called it "outrageous conduct" and a "travesty of justice for the Justice Department not to allow attorneys in the Voting Section to obtain nationwide injunctive relief against all four of the defendants."

The Bush-era Justice Department charged the New Black Panther Party and three of its members with voter intimidation, and a judge entered a default judgment against them the following April when they failed to appear in court. But in May of 2009, the Justice Department dismissed the cases against all the defendants except the man carrying the nightstick.

Coates declined to discuss the Justice Department's internal deliberations on the matter, saying he was honoring the department's assertion that internal discussions are protected from disclosure. But he acknowledged reports that he had fought the dismissal of the charges, including one heated confrontation in which he cursed at a more senior official.

The decision to drop the case "was intended to send a direct message" that the filing of similar voting cases "would not continue in the Obama administration," Coates testified

He said he was specifically instructed not to pursue cases against jurisdictions for having ineligible voters on their voting rolls, saying one jurisdiction had 130 percent more voters on its rolls than it had adult residents. But he did not ascribe racial motives to that order, saying instead he believed that his bosses would rather leave 100 non-eligible people on voter rolls rather than risk taking one person off who is eligible.

Nonetheless, he said, it is wrong to ignore voter list violations because the violations make vote fraud easier to conceal.

Coates' testimony follows that of former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams, who also testified there was a "pervasive hostility" in the Justice Department toward enforcing voting rights cases against African-Americans.

The Justice Department Friday said it is committed to the color-blind enforcement of laws.

"Let's not forget the context in which these allegations are being made," spokesman Schmaler said in a written statement. "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."

The Black Panther case has been a contentious matter before the Civil Rights Commission. One hearing this summer erupted in shouting between commission members, with conservative commission members accusing the Justice Department of "stonewalling" the commission's investigation into the dismissed charges, and a liberal commission member, in turn, calling those complaints the "last gasps of a conservative majority of this commission."