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The Justice Dept. and the Black Panthers

The GOP is criticizing the Justice Department for dropping charges against the New Black Panther Party under the Voting Rights Act. The attorney general should answer all questions, and then move on.

September 17, 2009

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.

It's difficult to disentangle the merits of this debate from partisan politics. During the Bush administration, Democrats (rightly) complained that the Justice Department had been politicized under the unwatchful eye of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Now it's the Republicans' turn. For example, former Vice President Dick Cheney recklessly characterized as an "outrageous political act" Holder's decision to ask a career prosecutor to determine whether some CIA employees might have violated the law in interrogating suspected terrorists.

Given the Black Panthers' appalling conduct, Holder should err on the side of disclosure in answering questions from Congress and the Civil Rights Commission about why the Justice Department changed course. It's also reassuring that the department's Office of Professional Responsibility is looking into the dismissal of charges. If, however, it finds no evidence of improper political motives, Republicans should register their disagreement with the decision and move on.

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