The Justice Department is ignoring civil rights cases that involve white victims and wrongly abandoned a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party last year, a top department official testified Friday. He called the department’s conduct a “travesty of justice.”
Christopher Coates, former voting chief for the department’s Civil Rights Division, spoke under oath Friday morning before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in a long-awaited appearance that had been stonewalled by the Justice Department for nearly a year.
Coates discussed in depth the DOJ’s decision to dismiss intimidation charges against New Black Panther members who were videotaped outside a Philadelphia polling place in 2008 dressed in military-style uniforms–one was brandishing a nightstick–and allegedly hurling racial slurs.
The case has drifted in and out of the limelight over the past year as the commission has struggled to investigate it. Former Justice official J. Christian Adams fueled the controversy when he testified in July and accused his former employer of showing “hostility” toward cases that involved white victims and black defendants.
Nearly three months later, Coates backed up Adams’ claims. In lengthy and detailed testimony, he said the department cultivates a “hostile atmosphere” against “race-neutral enforcement” of the Voting Rights Act.
He said civil rights attorneys stick to cases that involve minority victims, and he said the Black Panther case was dismissed following “pressure” by the NAACP and “anger” at the case within the Justice Department itself.
“That anger was the result of their deep-seated opposition to the equal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act against racial minorities and for the protection of white voters who have been discriminated against,” he said.
He said a 2005 case against a black official in Mississippi over voter intimidation claims had stirred a backlash in the department and from civil rights groups–and that the New Black Panther case was no different.
Since last year, Coates has been transferred to the U.S. attorney’s office in South Carolina. He said Friday that the Justice Department told him not to testify before the commission after he was first subpoenaed in December 2009; in testifying Friday, he claimed protection from retaliation under “whistleblower” laws.
[The transcript of Christopher Coates’s testimony can be downloaded as a PDF file here.]