DOJ Vet: Plan For Panther Hearings Shows Key Voting-Rights Panel Is “Kind Of A Joke”

Democrats and civil-rights advocates are slamming conservative members of a key federal voting-rights panel for a plan to hold hearings on the controversial “New Black Panthers” voter intimidation case, and are expressing intense concern that the commission is being shifted away from its traditional role as a protector of the rights of minority voters.

Yesterday, Main Justice reported that the commission, dominated by Bush appointees, planned to hold hearings on the New Black Panther case, which the Justice Department dismissed earlier this year. In a now-famous incident from Election Day 2008, a member of a group called the New Black Panther Party was caught on camera clad in combat boots and brandishing a night stick at a Philadelphia polling station.Conservatives have charged that the decision to drop the case was a politically motivated effort to avoid antagonizing an ally and to tacitly encourage anti-white intimidation. Commissioner Todd Gaziano — whose day job is with the conservative Heritage Foundation, and who last year brought in arch voting-rights foe Hans Von Spakovsky to work for the commission as a consultant — told Main Justice in reference to the plan to hold hearings: “More oversight is a good thing.”

In response, Michael Yaki, one of just two Democratic commissioners, told TPMmuckraker that Gaziano’s desired hearings were intended “to embarrass the Attorney General and the President, by trying to revive this fiction that there’s a double standard for justice in the Obama administration depending on if you’re black and white.”

Yaki described the Panther case as concerning “one isolated incident,” rather than representing the kind of systemic problem that commission has traditionally focused on. He called the planned hearings “a misuse of what the commission is supposed to be about.”

Gerald Hebert, a former acting head of the civil rights divisions voting section, agreed, telling TPMmuckraker: “There were a lot of problems with the case from an evidence standpoint.” Hebert cited as an example the fact that not a single voter says they were intimidated by the display, which took place at an almost entirely African-American polling place in downtown Philadelphia.

The decision to drop the case was made by Loretta King, at the time the acting Civil Rights Division chief, and a career DOJer, not a political appointee. An injunction was issued against the man carrying the nightstick. Last month the department announced that it was investigating King’s decision.

More broadly, both Yaki and Hebert lamented what they see as the effort by the commission’s conservative members, under the chairmanship of Republican Gerald Reynolds, to steer the panel away from its traditional role as a defender of minority voting rights.

Many of the commissions Republicans recently went so far as to intervene in the debate over health-care reform, sending a letter to Congress arguing that a provision in the legislation that aimed to encourage more minority doctors was “racially discriminatory” and unconstitutional — a claim that was quickly challenged by Democrats.

“It’s gone from a watchdog on behalf of civil rights to an attack dog against civil rights,” said Yaki. “It’s regrettable.”

Hebert was equally blunt, calling the commission “a shadow of its former self,” and “kind of a joke in the civil-rights community.”

Hebert cited several issues that the panel might focus on — voter intimidation and caging, the purging of voter rolls, civil rights for institutionalized persons, and a recent Supreme Court decision, Northwest Austin MUD v. Holder, that appears to weaken the Voting Rights Act — rather than the New Black Panther case.

And he slammed the efforts of GOP-appointed commissioners like Gaziano and Reynolds to move the panel away from its traditional focus on protecting the rights of minority voters.

“They really don’t deserve a platform to speak on these issues, because they haven’t done anything in the fight for civil rights their whole career,” he said. “These people have no civil rights credentials.”

Gaziano did not respond to a request for comment.