A long-running dispute over the Justice Department's handling of a 2008 voter intimidation case has morphed into a partisan debate about whether the department is hostile to white voters whose rights are violated. So far the evidence is anecdotal and impressionistic. The department has denied that race plays any role in its decisions enforcing the Voting Rights Act, and its critics — including conservatives on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission — have yet to establish that a worthy case was dropped because of liberal ideological bias.
FOR THE RECORD:
Voter intimidation: A July 8 editorial referring to a 2008 voter intimidation case suggested that a member of the New Black Panther Party told a white voter: "Now you will see what it is like to be ruled by the black man, cracker." According to an election observer, that remark was directed at him and another poll watcher. The editorial also should have made it clear that an injunction preventing a member of the party from displaying a weapon near a polling place in Philadelphia will expire after the November 2012 election. —
The clash between the commission and the Justice Department has its origins in an election day incident in which two members of the New Black Panther Party, one of whom was carrying a nightstick, were captured on videotape standing outside a polling station in Philadelphia. According to a witness, the Panthers shouted racial slurs; one said, presumably to a white voter: "Now you will see what it is like to be ruled by the black man, cracker." In the closing days of the George W. Bush administration, the department filed a complaint against the two men, along with the head of the party and the organization itself, asking a court to rule that they had violated the law and to order them not to engage in similar conduct. After President Obama took office, however, the department decided that charges should be dropped against all of the defendants except the man with the nightstick. The department succeeded in obtaining an injunction to forbid him from carrying a weapon at a polling place in the future.
The Panthers' behavior was outrageous, even if no voter was actually deterred from exercising the franchise. But there is no evidence that the charges were dropped because of political pressure or lack of sympathy for white voters. Assistant Atty. Gen. Tom Perez told the Civil Rights Commission that the department had concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish a violation by the other three defendants. Reasonable lawyers could differ on that question, and in fact some lower-ranking lawyers believed strongly in the case against all four parties.
One of those lawyers, J. Christian Adams, defended the original charges Tuesday in testimony before the commission. Adams, who has since resigned from the department, said: "I was told by voting section management that cases are not going to be brought against black defendants on [behalf] of white victims." If the commission heard from other lawyers in the section, he said, "little doubt would remain whether or not open hostility exists toward race-neutral and equal enforcement of the voting laws."
The department's Office of Professional Responsibility is already investigating the handling of the Black Panthers case. As part of that investigation, it ought to determine whether Adams' accusations of discrimination against white voters have any merit. So far the case hasn't been made.