Conservative Civil Rights Commission Asks Congress For Permission to Sue DOJ

Todd Gaziano
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During a heated hearing on Friday, the conservative majority of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights approved a motion asking Congress to give it permission to sue the Justice Department if the department does not cooperate with USCCR subpoenas, including those in its probe of the handling of a civil case against members of the New Black Panther Party.

The recommendation to Congress, which at least one commissioner said is unlikely to pass the legislative body, was authored by GOP-appointed but politically independent Commissioner Todd Gaziano of the conservative Heritage Foundation. It claims that DOJ “has an inherent conflict of interest when it would prefer not to cooperate fully with the Commission’s investigations of DOJ actions.”

Under the Commission’s proposal, Congress would amend the body’s statute so that it can request the Attorney General appoint a special prosecutor or allow the Commission to hire its own counsel to represent it in court when there is a conflict of interest, including in the New Black Panther Party case.

Democratically-appointed Commissioners Michael Yaki and Arlan Melendez as well as GOP appointee Abigail Thernstrom voted against the measure. Thernstrom has been critical of her colleague’s focus on the New Black Panther Party matter.

Yaki, a former senior adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told TPMMuckraker his conservative colleagues’ pursuit of the matter amounted to a “partisan witch-hunt and fishing expedition.”

Debate between Yaki and and some of the conservative members of the commission was heated. A Fox News producer counted at least six times when the meeting broke into shouting during an hour-long discussion of the New Black Panther Party case.

The recommendation to Congress has no weight, especially since Congress has yet to settle on what to do when an administration defies its subpoenas, Yaki told TPMMuckraker on Monday.

“I find it very strange and unrealistic that Congress would grant us even more powers than they currently have,” Yaki said.

The Commission has the power to issue subpoenas, but since it lacks enforcement power, it is up to the Justice Department to take action to make sure those subpoenas mean something. Since the Justice Department believes the subpoenas in this case would interfere with internal DOJ policies, it has declined to make former Voting Section Chief Chris Coates available.

“Facts and evidence mean nothing to the majority in their request to continue this extreme waste of taxpayer funds,” Yaki said. He said the congressional proposal has “no chance” of moving forward.

The Commission will vote on report will be Sept. 24, but the actual report will not be issued until sometime in November. The findings of the report authored by the majority of the commission, however, will likely be announced before the midterm elections, Yaki said.

The New Black Panther Party case isn’t the only time the commission has focused on complaints of racism against white Americans: commissioners took issue with provisions of the health care bill which prioritized grants to institutions that train minority and rural doctors and wrote a letter last year urging members of Congress to vote down the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The commission’s investigation into the New Black Panther Party case started in the summer of 2009, but heated up when former Justice Department attorney J. Christian Adams quit his job and then testified before the commission that the Civil Rights Division “doesn’t want to protect white voters.”

That’s not true, says the Justice Department. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas E. Perez told the commission in an Aug. 11 letter that there “should be no misunderstanding: the Civil Rights Division is firmly committed to the evenhanded application of the law, without regard to the race of the victims or perpetrators of unlawful behavior. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply untrue.”

Adams was hired for his conservative credentials and “is exhibit A of the type of people” brought on by Bradley Schlozman, according to Joe Rich, former chief of the Voting Section. A Justice Department Inspector General report found that Schlozman politicized the hiring process – referring to conservatives as “right-thinking Americans” and liberals as “commies” and “mole spores.”

Adams was one of the lawyers who filed a civil voter intimidation lawsuit against two men who stood outside a polling place in Philadelphia on election day 2008. The suit was based on a rarely used section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that typically was deployed in cases of widespread pattern of voter intimidation.

The Justice Department later dismissed the case against all but one defendant, citing a lack of that pattern of intimidation, the fact that one of the Black Panthers was a registered Democratic poll watcher and that lack of evidence that the leadership of the organization condoned the one New Black Panthers behavior. The DOJ obtained an injunction against the New Black Panther who carried the nightstick.

CNN’s video on the Civil Rights Commission hearing is embedded below.

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