Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday pushed backed against those who accuse the Justice Department of enforcing civil rights laws based on race, saying people need to just “look at the facts.”
“The notion that we are enforcing any civil rights laws–voting or others–on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender is simply false,” Holder said.
For more than a year, Republicans and others have been questioning why the Obama administration reversed course on a federal lawsuit against two members of the New Black Panther Party, who were videotaped outside a Philadelphia polling station on Election Day 2008. The two were dressed in military-style uniforms, and one was holding a nightstick. The issue escalated after a former Justice Department attorney and, more recently, a current Justice Department attorney alleged it was all part of an Obama administration policy to avoid prosecuting minorities, an allegation the Justice Department has repeatedly denied.
Asked why a current Justice Department attorney would make such a claim about his own employer, Holder said, “I have no idea, but there’s no basis in fact for that charge.”
Speaking during an unrelated press conference in Washington, Holder said he’s trying to fix the Justice Department, not politicize it.
Holder said previous politicization of the Justice Department is “documented in inspector general reports from the past.” In fact, a 2008 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general said a top Civil Rights Division official “inappropriately considered political and ideological affiliations in hiring experienced attorneys” and “considered political and ideological affiliations in transferring and assigning cases to career attorneys.”
Three weeks ago, the Justice Department’s inspector general announced he would launch an investigation into “more broadly the overall enforcement of civil rights laws by the Voting Section” of the Civil Rights Division, including “information about cases such as the New Black Panther Party matter and others.”
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, led by a conservative majority, are also looking into the matter.
In July, the former Justice Department attorney, current conservative blogger J. Christian Adams, told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights there was an “open hostility toward equal enforcement in a colorblind way of the voting rights laws.”
Three weeks ago, Christopher Coates, a current Justice Department attorney who was heavily involved in the initial filing of the New Black Panther Party case, echoed that allegation, telling the commission there has been a “hostile atmosphere” within the Civil Rights Division “against race-neutral enforcement” of voting rights laws. Coates also said he attended a lunch meeting in September 2009, during which a top Justice Department official told those gathered that the Obama administration was only interested in prosecuting voting rights cases that would help minorities.
The Justice Department tried to block his testimony, citing “longstanding Department of Justice policy” to avoid disclosing “confidential internal deliberations.”
After Coates’ testimony, a Justice Department spokeswoman said the commission’s “so-called investigation is thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric.”
She called the Bush administration’s politicization of the Justice Department “a disgrace to the great history of the [Civil Rights] division,” adding, “We have changed that.”
In a letter sent to the commission in August, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez, pointed to “our ongoing work in Mississippi,” where the Justice Department recently filed a motion to stop Democratic officials from discriminating against white voters.
But in his testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Coates said he believes the New Black Panther Party case was “gutted” because “the people calling the shots” at the time “were angry” at the filing of the Mississippi case and the New Black Panther Party case.