Political appointees drop voter intimidation case against Panthers
Justice Department political appointees overruled career lawyers and ended a civil complaint accusing three members of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense of wielding a nightstick and intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place last Election Day, according to documents and interviews.
The incident — which gained national attention when it was captured on videotape and distributed on YouTube — had prompted the government to sue the men, saying they violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act by scaring would-be voters with the weapon, racial slurs and military-style uniforms.
Career lawyers pursued the case for months, including obtaining an affidavit from a prominent 1960s civil rights activist who witnessed the confrontation and described it as “the most blatant form of voter intimidation” that he had seen, even during the voting rights crisis in Mississippi a halfcentury ago.
The lawyers also had ascertained that one of the three men had gained access to the polling place by securing a credential as a Democratic poll watcher, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Times.
The career Justice lawyers were on the verge of securing sanctions against the men earlier in May when their superiors or- dered them to reverse course, according to interviews and documents. The court had already entered a default judgment against the men on April 20.
A Justice Department spokesman on May 28 confirmed that the agency had dropped the case, dismissing two of the men from the lawsuit with no penalty and winning an order against the third man that simply prohibits him from bringing a weapon to a polling place in future elections.
The department was “success- one exercising his or her sacred right to vote.”
Court records reviewed by The Times show that career Justice lawyers were seeking a default judgment and penalties against the three men as recently as May 5, before abruptly ending their pursuit 10 days later.
People directly familiar with the case, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution, said career lawyers in two separate Justice offices had recommended proceed-
Poll watcher Bartle Bull said the “clear purpose” of what the Panthers were doing was to “intimidate voters with whom they did not agree.” He also said he overheard one of the men tell a white poll watcher: “You are about to be ruled by the black man, cracker.”
ful in obtaining an injunction that prohibits the defendant who brandished a weapon outside a Philadelphia polling place from doing so again,” spokesman Alejandro Miyar said. “Claims were dismissed against the other defendants based on a careful assessment of the facts and the law.”
Mr. Miyar declined to elaborate about any internal dispute between career and political officials, saying only that the department is “committed to the vigorous prosecution of those who intimidate, threaten or coerce any- ing to default judgment before political superiors overruled them.
Tensions between career lawyers and political appointees inside the Justice Department have been a sensitive matter since allegations surfaced during the Bush administration that higherups had ignored or reversed staff lawyers and that some U.S. attorneys had been removed or selected for political reasons.
During his January confirmation hearings, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said that during his lengthy Justice Depart- ment tenure, the career lawyers were “my teachers, my colleagues and my friends” and described them as the “backbone” of the department.
“If I am confirmed as attorney general, I will listen to them, respect them and make them proud of the vital goals we will pursue together,” he said.
Justice officials declined to say whether Mr. Holder or other senior Justice officials became involved in the case, saying they don’t discuss internal delibera- tions.
The civil suit filed Jan. 7 identified the three men as members of the Panthers and said they wore military-style uniforms, black berets, combat boots, battle-dress pants, black jackets with militarystyle insignias and were armed with “a dangerous weapon”and used racial slurs and insults to scare would-be voters and those there to assist them at the Philadelphia polling location on Nov. 4.
To support its evidence, the government had secured an affi- davit from Bartle Bull, a longtime civil rights activist and former aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Mr. Bull said in a sworn statement dated April 7 that he was serving in November as a credentialed poll watcher in Philadelphia when he saw the three uniformed Panthers confront and intimidate voters with a nightstick.
Inexplicably, the government did not enter the affidavit in the court case, according to the files.
“In my opinion, the men created an intimidating presence at the entrance to a poll,” he declared. “In all my experience in politics, in civil rights litigation and in my efforts in the 1960s to secure the right to vote in Mississippi [. . . ] I have never encountered or heard of another instance in the United States where armed and uniformed men blocked the entrance to a polling location.”
Mr. Bull said the “clear purpose” of what the Panthers were doing was to “intimidate voters with whom they did not agree.” He also said he overheard one of the men tell a white poll watcher: “You are about to be ruled by the black man, cracker.”
He called their conduct an “outrageous affront to American democracy and the rights of voters to participate in an election without fear.” He said it was a “racially motivated effort to limit both poll watchers aiding voters, as well as voters with whom the men did not agree.”