It’s been 689 days since two men affiliated with a fringe group called the New Black Panther Party, one of them carrying a nightstick, stood outside of the a polling place dressed in military garb in an overwhelmingly African-American community in Philadelphia.
The conservative majority of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had been prepared today to approve a report that observers expected would blast the Obama administration for the decision to drop the civil case against all but one of defendants, which was brought in the waning days of the Bush administration.
But mid-afternoon Wednesday, the former chief of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division who signed off on the case, Chris Coates, sent this letter to the commission chairman stating that — in defiance of the Justice Department’s order — he would like to appear before the panel.
It isn’t clear why Coates decided to testify now, as the commission issued the subpoena back in December 2009. The Justice Department, which had instructed him not to comply with the subpoena, had no comment Thursday on Coates’ scheduled testimony. One of the lawyers who worked on the case, J. Christian Adams, resigned his DOJ post earlier this year and complied with the subpoena by testifying before the commission.
Final approval of the commission’s 2010 Enforcement Report — which focuses on the incident in Philadelphia and examines whether the Obama administration is race-neutral in its enforcement of voting laws — might have to be pushed back so Coates’ testimony could be added to the record.
Commission spokeswoman Lenore Ostrowsky told TPMMuckraker that commissioners were surprised to hear from Coates, but were happy to see that he would comply with the commission’s subpoena despite what commissioners have described as DOJ’s obstruction.
Since the commissioners subpoenaed Coates back in 2009, “it’s safe to say that the commissioner are looking forward to hearing his testimony,” Ostrowsky said. Coates had been reassigned to a temporary position in the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Carolina after he resigned as Voting Section chief — a move DOJ contends he requested.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) fired off a letter Thursday warning Attorney General Eric Holder not to interfere with Coates’ decision to appear before the commission, and stating that Coates had contacted him to discuss the enforcement of voting laws.
Former Justice Department official Hans von Spakovsky was quick to portray Coates as a longtime civil rights, mentioning his work with the American Civil Liberties Union earlier in his career and an award from the NAACP in the early 90’s.
What he didn’t mention is that former colleagues say Coates underwent an ideological transformation after he didn’t get a position as a deputy section chief in July of 2000 according to a story Adam Serwer wrote in the American Prospect earlier this year.
Coates believed he was passed over because he was white and filed a complaint, The matter was settled internally. Coates was also identified in the story as the unnamed voting section lawyer recommended by Bradley Schlozman for a position as an immigration judge. (Schlozman, you may recall, hired conservatives he labeled “good Americans,” including Adams, who brought the New Black Panther Party case).
Coates’ decision to appear — which Serwer first reported on Wednesday evening — will likely breathe new life into the red-meat issue which has dominated the conservative media since the spring of 2009.
Often coverage of the New Black Panther Party story has implied that the first African-American President and the Attorney General were favoring an extremist group due to the color of their skin. The subtext, the antithesis of a statement made by Kayne West about President Bush, boils down to this: Barack Obama doesn’t care about white people.
The Black Panther Party case has also offered conservatives a chance to turn the tables on the charges the Bush administration politicized the Civil Rights Division, allegations backed up by a joint report by DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility.
Republican poll watchers present at the polling place on election day 2008 have also gotten their say before the commission at a hearing where Commissioner Todd Gaziano compared the video of the New Black Panther Party members outside the polling place to footage of Eugene “Bull” Connor turning hoses and dogs on civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s.
What’s usually unmentioned in the narrative about the New Black Panther Party case is that cases alleging voter intimidation under Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act are extremely rare — the total number of such cases in the history of the act can be counted on one hand.
But the Commission isn’t the only party looking at the New Black Panther Party case. The Justice Department’s internal ethics unit had opened an investigation into the decision last fall and the Inspector General said this month he would look at the Voting Section’s enforcement of voting laws.
Talking Points Memo will have coverage of the commission’s hearing Friday morning.
The video that kicked off the original case, filmed by an individual hired by the Republican party is embedded below.