Associate Attorney General Thomas J. Perrelli overruled career lawyers at the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division to drop a complaint against three members of the New Black Panther Party of intimidating voters in Philadelphia during November’s election — including one member Samir Shabazz who brandished a nightstick.
Career lawyers wanted sanctions against the Black Panthers who showed and had already won a default judgment against the men.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King reportedly recommended dropping the case to Mr. Perrelli who is third in command at the DOJ.
This has become a major story for conservative commentators — some of whom have taken it to an absurd degree to suggest that the Obama Administration is in league with the New Black Panthers. There may indeed to legitimate legal reasons for the decision, but on its face it is hard to discern why career staff would be overruled on this point. It is perfectly appropriate for political appointees to make decisions based on the policy priorities of the Administration. However, this is a straight-forward question under a federal statute. I do not know of any specific Obama policy that would undermine enforcement. This was a limited occurrence. However, the Justice Department seems to suggest this is not actionable conduct. At a minimum, there should be a fuller explanation of why this is not a violation and what are the limits for paramilitary groups parading in front of polling places.
Under the circumstances, the complaint seemed reasonable when it was brought in January, here. Under Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits intimidation, coercion or threats against “any person for voting or attempting to vote.” The Department simply sought an injunction preventing any future deployment of, or display of weapons by, New Black Panther Party members at the entrance to polling locations. By dropping the complaint, the Obama Administration suggests that other groups could show up at polling places with such weapons and military-style uniforms. What if this were the Aryan Nation or Soldiers of God? Doesn’t brandishing a weapon have an intimidating effect on voters? I understand that the case was weakened by the fact that a police officer allowed at least one man to remain. However, it seems that the section was seeking a modest sanction to keep this group (or other groups) from showing up in paramilitary outfits and weapons.