There has been much ado in the right-wing press and blogosphere about the "extraordinary" allegations made by Justice Department attorney Christopher Coates last week. In testimony before the conservative-controlled U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Coates stated his belief that DoJ had a policy of using the Voting Rights Act to only protect the rights of minorities, not white voters. Exhibit A, according to Coates, was the decision by DoJ to proceed only against one defendant and dismiss the remainder of the charges brought by the Bush-era initiated voter intimidation case against various members of New Black Panther party for an incident at a single polling place in Philadelphia in 2008.
What I found more extraordinary, however, was what Coates surely did not intend to reveal during questioning at the Commission. Rather than being a nonpartisan, career civil servant as his fanatical devotees at Fox News would believe, he came across as a conservative ideologue, resentful and spiteful of his liberal colleagues, standing shoulder to shoulder with a man who the independent Office of the Inspector General found acted illegally in politicizing hiring at DoJ. Coates came across as a person with an ax to grind against the new Administration, and, I believe, short-circuited the normal investigative process in the New Black Panther party case in order to lay this goose egg on Obama's doorstep before the President was sworn in less than two weeks later.
Towards the end of his abbreviated testimony (the Republican Chair of the Commission abruptly cut off questioning) I asked Coates whether he thought Bradley Schlozman, the disgraced former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, was his friend. Schlozman, mind you, was the man the Office of the Inspector General found was engaging in a putsch of the Civil Rights Division by illegally politicizing hiring of career attorneys (one of his hires was Christian Adams, which Coates, in his testimony, heartily approved of). During his stormy tenure at DoJ, Schlozman was overheard saying he wanted to hire "right thinking Americans" as opposed to "disloyal" Democrats and liberals. He once emailed that he was interviewing a "lefty... I will never hire" and made repeated reference to whether someone was on the "team," which the OIG found to be code word for "conservative."
Not only did Coates acknowledge that Schlozman was his friend, but confirmed that Schlozman had recommended him for a position as an immigration judge (so much, by the way, for his commitment to the civil rights division). Indeed, most damning, Coates affirmed that he was the subject of an email cited by the OIG in which Schlozman characterized a "former ACLU" attorney as a "true member of the team" - which, as the OIG report found, meant he fit the conservative philosophy championed by Schlozman.
But it didn't stop there. Coates went on to defend Schlozman's illegal hiring practices because the Civil Rights Division was "almost totally left liberal." Coates further testified that he objected to a characterization of him that he was "more" conservative then he was 20 years ago - implying that, for some time, Coates considered himself a conservative. Indeed, Coates testified that if John McCain had been elected, he would have stayed as Section Chief.
It is against this background that we must analyze the filing of the New Black Panther party case. From the time of the incident to the time of filing, approximately two months passed. From the time of the incident to the time of the filing of the "J" memo, a memorandum summarizing the facts and law to justify the filing of a lawsuit, barely 45 days had passed.
Let's contrast that with other statements that Coates said with regard to investigations of voter intimidation. In the case of Noxubee, Mississippi, where DoJ did intervene to protect white voters against a conspiracy by black officials to diminish their voting rights, the investigation took the better part of almost two years before a complaint was filed. In the case of Pima, Arizona, where members of the Minutemen were intimidating Latino voters with fake badges and videocams, and where one man was openly displaying a holstered weapon (which led to one of the more incredible statements made by Coates - that because the weapon was holstered, it was legal and, therefore, not important in the intimidation analysis), an attorney was sent, the investigation took 2 years and resulted in federal observers - no lawsuit - being sent to Pima in the next election. In another case involved armed agents of the Mississippi government intimidating elderly black voters, including asking them who they voted for, that investigation took many months and resulted in Schlozman killing any proposed lawsuit. And with respect to protecting white voters, in two separate cases in Mississippi and Alabama, where Coates said there were clear cases of discrimination against white voters, "prolonged" investigations resulted in no action being taken by the Justice Department. Taken together, these cases show a Department of Justice -- of either stripe -- that is thorough, deliberate, and very careful in determining the appropriate action and remedies available to them.
But with the Panthers, the investigation took barely weeks, and for most of that time Christian Adams was flailing around with email messages to right-wing and Republican operatives looking for names of witnesses. Just 10 days prior to the filing of the "J" memo, the emails showed that there were no complaints by voters received with regard to the Panther precinct. Indeed, the emails showed that Adams knew they had no case. And Adams, in another email, wrote that he was in a rush to get it done.
The complaint itself shows great haste. The complaint is extremely vague in its allegations, doesn't name any specific individuals who claimed they were intimidated, and its remedy basically asks for nothing short of a lifetime and global ban on the New Black Panthers, despite the absence of any evidence other than the YouTube video. If you read any good complaint filed by DoJ -- including the one in Noxubee, ironically, drafted by Coates -- this stands out in stark contrast for its sloppiness and vague and general allegations. Indeed, the complaint continues to refer to voter, not poll watcher, intimidation, where the evidence showed then and shows now that not a single voter complained about the Panthers. Coates said the "absence" of actual voter complaints didn't bother him. Really? This complaint shows haste, pure and simple.
Remember, at this time Coates was still the Section Chief of the Voting Rights division. He probably knew, or suspected that his time as Chief was up with the new Administration. His candidate, McCain, has lost. His mentor, Schlozman, had been purged, and his friend, Hans von Spakofsky, had seen his nomination to the Federal Election Commission torpedoed by his own tarnished legacy at Justice, and Coates' own embrace of conservative purge had been exposed in the OIG report. In Coates' eyes, the hated "left liberals" would be coming into power within a matter of weeks and would review the matter if he did not file the suit right away.
Therefore, we can and should infer from the testimony and evidence surrounding Christopher Coates is that the lawsuit on the Panthers was a rush to judgment -- filed long before it was ripe, before a full investigation was completed, and contrary to longstanding practices whether the defendants be black or white. Let's not forget that there have been only 3 11(b) filings in the history of the statute spanning nearly 45 years, and there must be a reason that great care is taken before it is pursued. None of that care is evident in the complaint. Even the remedy sought is suspect. In Pima, Arizona, where GUNS were involved, the remedy sought was sending federal observers. In Mississippi, where GUNS were involved, there was no remedy at all. Here, where a single person had a nightstick, the equivalent of a lifetime ban was sought. Justice is, for all its faults, proportional. There was no proportion in the original Panther complaint.
And what we can also infer is that Christopher Coates, conservative ally of Schlozman and von Spakofsky, seeing that the Civil Rights Division would be returning to its historical mission of protecting the rights of minorities as well as white voters, was going to do one last thing as Section Chief to spit in the eye of the new Administration. And he did, and that takes us to where we are today.
This doesn't excuse the New Black Panther party or its members of its racist, idiotic ideology. It doesn't excuse their behavior in front of the polling place in Philadelphia, or the racist taunts and threats made by them against the Republican and McCain poll monitors. Racism has no place in America. But surely, one can take from the manner in which the case was handled, that some doubts should be resolved in favor of the Justice Department's second look at the case; that given other situations where 11(b) suits were not filed on behalf of white and black voters (scenarios testified to by Coates himself) it is clear the wheels of the Department of Justice grind slowly, methodically, and deliberately, and that policy was clearly thrown off the bus by Coates and Adams. Which makes DoJ's decision to only pursue the case against the one defendant (with the billy club) all the more a case of prosecutorial discretion -- not an evil left-wing conspiracy as alleged by Coates and Adams. And if that wasn't enough, DoJ's decision to fully engage this July in the Noxubee case to protect white voter should put to rest any crazed idea that there is any pattern or practice of not protecting the white vote.
I haven't even begun to address the broader and just as spurious allegations that Coates and Adams have made. But to the extent that their house of cards rests on the decisions made in the New Black Panther case, the collapse of those cards is of their own, hurried, partisan making -- the faint, last gasp of the ideological remnants of the Bush/Gonzales/Schlozman regime.
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