The Justice Department has told the federal attorneys who filed a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party for disrupting a Philadelphia polling place last year not to cooperate with an investigation of the incident by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
The commission last week subpoenaed at least two Justice Department lawyers and sought documents from the department to explain why the complaint was dismissed just as a federal judge was about to punish the New Black Panther Party and three of its members for intimidating voters.
Joseph H. Hunt, director of the Justice Department’s Federal Programs Branch, ordered the lawyers’ silence in a letter to the attorney for J. Christian Adams, the lead attorney for the department in the New Black Panther case. The letter said “well-established” and “lawful” Justice Department guidelines prohibited Mr. Adams’ cooperation in the commission probe.
In the letter, Mr. Hunt said the Civil Rights Commission “possesses no authority to initiate criminal prosecution of anyone” and has the ability only to make referrals to the Justice Department recommending that a criminal case be opened. The commission does not have the authority to enforce subpoenas, he added.
Todd Gaziano, a nonpartisan member of the Civil Rights Commission, challenged the Justice Department’s ruling, saying that the regulations cited do not apply and that the commission is “duly authorized by statute to review and report on enforcement activities of the Justice Department and other similar agencies.”
Mr. Gaziano, a former Justice Department lawyer who served in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, said the Justice Department “had it exactly backwards” when it suggested that there could be negative consequences for those who comply with the commission’s subpoenas. He said a lawyer cannot refuse to comply with a subpoena he knows to be lawful.
He also said the commission’s investigation could include public hearings in Washington and Philadelphia. The commission wants to know whether the decision to drop the charges constituted a departure from prior enforcement policy and whether its actions might lead to more voter intimidation, he added.