Last Nov. 4, voters outside a Philadelphia polling place were greeted by two men wearing the paramilitary-style uniform of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. One carried a nightstick, an act of intimidation captured on video and immortalized on YouTube. According to a witness, a self-described liberal, one of the Panthers shouted (presumably to a white voter): "Now you will see what it is like to be ruled by the black man, cracker."
Citing both the menacing "deployment" of the Panthers and their abusive language, out- going U.S. Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey in January asked a federal judge to declare the two men caught on videotape, an associate and the New Black Panther Party in violation of the Voting Rights Act and to enjoin them and their "agents and successors" from blocking polling places dressed in uniforms or carrying weapons.
But after the defendants failed to appear in court, the Justice Department, now led by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., dismissed most of the civil lawsuit, contenting itself with an injunction ordering the man with the nightstick not to display a weapon at a polling place.
The turnaround quickly became a cause celebre for the Republican Party and conservatives in the media, though criticism also came from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The Washington Times reported that political appointees had overruled career attorneys. Not so, said the administration, adding that Associate Atty. Gen. Thomas Perrelli simply ratified a decision by career lawyers, including the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, not to proceed because of legal and factual problems.