DOJ Inspector General Will Investigate Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine says he will examine the Civil Rights Division’s enforcement of voting rights laws after being pressured by GOP House members to examine DOJ’s handling of a case against members of the New Black Panther Party.In a letter sent Monday to Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Fine explained that he could not investigate the particular case that has become a lingering issue since early in the Obama administration. He said he could, however, take a look at the overall enforcement of voting rights laws in the Civil Rights Division.

From the letter:

This review will examine, among other issues, the types of cases brought by the Voting Section and any changes in these types of cases over time; any changes in Voting Section enforcement policies or procedures over time; whether the Voting Section has enforced the civil rights laws in a non-discriminatory manner; and whether any Voting Section employees have been harassed for participating in the investigation or prosecution of particular matters.

“While our review will include such cases as the New Black Panther Party case and others, our review will be focused more broadly on the overall enforcement of civil rights laws by the Voting Section than on a single case,” Fine wrote.

The Office of Professional Responsibility, which is addressing the particulars of the New Black Panther Party case, is near the end of its investigation and officials are beginning to draft their report, according to Fine’s letter.

Conservatives have alleged that reverse racism was at play in the case against the New Black Panther Party. In the final days of the Bush administration, lawyers in the Voting Section filed a rare voter intimidation case against members of the party who had stood outside a polling place in Philadelphia. The Obama Justice Department later obtained an injunction against the man who was holding a nightstick, but dropped the case against the national party as well and other individuals who were originally named in the civil case.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department referred questions about the investigation to the Inspector General’s office, but said that DOJ makes enforcement decisions based on the evidence and the merits of each case.

“We are committed to the evenhanded enforcement of the many statutes in the jurisdiction of the Civil Rights Division’s Voting Section and we continue to work with voters, communities, and local law enforcement, among others, to protect the fundamental right to vote,” Xochitl Hinojosa said.

The Voting Section has long been a point of controversy under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Before the new administration took office, the Obama-Biden transition team conducted its own overview of the Civil Rights Division, including the Voting Section. An excerpt from their report, obtained by TPM:

The politicization of legal analyses and case
decisions at the expense of sound law enforcement was particularly egregious in
the Voting Section, and the politicized personnel decisions described above had a
particularly deleterious impact here. It is evident that the Section, at times at the behest
of DOJ’s highest ranking officials, prioritized a voter fraud prevention and prosecution
agenda designed to suppress minority voter turnout; and decisions on some Section 5
submissions were crafted to serve partisan ends. Notably, the Section focused on the
HAVA provisions that allow for purging voter rolls, rather than the provisions that
promote voter registration. Although the Section did bring a significant number of
language assistance cases, it largely abandoned voting rights cases on behalf of African
Americans until very recently. In addition to remedying these enforcement gaps, as
explained below, the Section must hire and train attorneys and analysts now to prepare
for the avalanche of Section 5 redistricting submissions that will follow the 2010 census.

Separately, the conservative-controlled U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has made the New Black Panther Party case the topic of their 2010 enforcement report, which will be issued in the coming months. The Commission has asked for permission from Congress to sue the Justice Department and force it to comply with its subpoenas.

The Washington Examiner first reported Fine’s response.

The letter, posted on Wolf’s website, is embedded below. Additional reporting by Rachel Slajda.

Letter to Congressmen Smith and Wolf, 9/13/10

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