The Commission on Civil Rights today approved a motion asking Congress to essentially allow it to take the Justice Department to court if it refuses to enforce the commission's subpoenas and other "lawful requests" pertaining to a lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party.
In a heated, often unruly meeting where tempers flared, most of the eight-member, conservative-heavy commission accused the Justice Department of failing to enforce the voting rights law in a race-neutral way in the case of the black panthers.
The Bush administration filed a voter intimidation lawsuit against three members of the New Black Panther Party in January 2009, alleging that they intimidated voters outside a polling place in Philadelphia in November 2008 by hurling racial slurs.
Videos circulating on the Internet showed a man holding a baton outside a polling station.
But the Obama administration dropped the lawsuit in May against all members save Malik Zulu Shabazz, who was accused of yielding the baton, saying that it couldn't find any evidence and claims by voters that they were intimidated.
"The department concluded that the allegations in the complaint against Jerry Jackson, the other defendant present at the polling place, as well as the allegations against the national New Black Panther Party and its leader, Malik Zulu Shabazz, did not have sufficient evidentiary support," Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez told the Commission in May. "The Department reviewed the totality of the evidence in the applicable law in reaching these decisions."
But conservative members of the commission say they want more evidence from the Justice Department, especially because a former trial attorney at the DOJ, J. Christian Adams, testified in July that the agency repeatedly showed "hostility" against cases like those involving the New Black Panther Party.
"The section doesn't want to protect white voters," Adams claimed of the DOJ's civil rights division.
The commission, which has been investigating the case since June 2009, claims it needs to hear from Chris Coates, head of the voting section of DOJ's Civil Rights Division.
But the department has yet to respond to a request by the commission for him to testify. Perez, the assistant attorney general who wasn't part of the initial investigation and joined the department in October, told Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds in a letter that Coates, who is is now working at the U.S. Attorney's office for the district of South Carolina, would not be an "appropriate witness," leading the commission's conservative members to cry foul.
Justice Department Under Fire for New Black Panther Party Case
Commissioner Todd Gaziano said Coates' testimony would be crucial to gauge whether "there is hostility against neutral enforcement of civil rights laws and specific instructions from Obama political appointees to enforce the voting rights laws in race-conscience ways."
"It's rather dumbfounding to me that he [Perez] doesn't acknowledge those statements and he continues to refuse to allow Chris Coates to testify," Gaziano added.
Commissioner Peter Kirsanow today called the refusal "stonewalling" and an "abomination of civil rights law," and urged members of Congress to give the commission the authority to take the issue to a federal court.
But the handful of DOJ supporters on the commission say the investigation is being exaggerated for political gains.
"We are not uniquely victimized here," Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican, said of the panel.
Thernstrom and Democratic Commissioners Michael Yaki and Arlan D. Melendez were the three who voted against today's motion and have sided with the Justice Department.
In fiery comments, Yaki argued that the Justice Department's policy has been consistent with what the Bush administration had done and the commission's investigation was merely a "partisan duck out" by those who have "an axe to grind against the Obama administration."
"I think it's purely tainted by partisan politics plaguing this investigation," Yaki told ABC News. "There's a lot of smoke being created but there's no fire."
There are two Democrats, two independents and four Republicans on the commission.
The New Black Panther Party, having been cleared of all the charges, has taken up a new fight – against conservative radio host Glenn Beck. Shabazz told Mediaite's Tommy Christopher that the New Black Panther Party will directly oppose the march Beck has planned for Aug. 28 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
"Since the Tea Party loves Glenn Beck and will be there, the New Black Panther Party can easily find the Tea Party, right with Glenn Beck. He can bring his Tea Party, and we'll bring our party, and we'll see Glenn Beck," Shabazz said.