Former DOJ Lawyer Objects To Bush-Era Voting Section Chief’s Testimony

A former Justice Department lawyer, Robert Kengle, has written the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to object to the testimony of the former head of the Voting Section, Christopher Coates. Coates accused Kengle of being leery of the Bush-era Noxubee, Miss. voter intimidation case, which was the first time that the federal government used the 1965 Voting Rights Act to allege racial discrimination against whites.

As Adam Serwer reports, Kengle wrote the conservative-controlled U.S. Commission on Civil Rights with his complaint. The Commission is examining the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act as part of their inquiry into DOJ’s handling of the voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party.What’s important here, say voting rights experts, is the context of that particular voter intimidation case. Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act is extremely rarely used. Outside of the case against the New Black Panthers and the Noxubee case, it has only been used in a couple of other cases, the most recent against the campaign of Sen. Jesse Helms back in the early 1990s.

Coates, who took over the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division late in the Bush administration, had testified that Kengle said of the Noxubee case, “can you believe we’re going to Mississippi to protect white voters?”

But Kengle writes that it wasn’t that he had a problem with protecting white voters: his problem was that the Noxubee case was made a priority while other cases fell by the wayside. Voting lawyers have argued that DOJ leadership at the time pursed the case to prove a political point about race-neutral enforcement of the law, and that it was a misuse of limited department resources.

In the declaration, also obtained by TPMMuckraker, Kengle writes:

The sum and substance of the concerns that I definitely and specifically expressed to Mr. Coates during the 2003 Noxubee County coverage, as I did to other management-level career staff within the Voting Section, was that “I think it’s ridiculous (or outrageous) that we are being ordered to cover this election when Hans [von Spakovsky] and [Bradley] Schlozman are rejecting our other recommendations.” By this I referred to recommendations to monitor elections and open investigations based upon concerns of discrimination against minority voters, which had been rejected by those front office appointees for what I believed were spurious reasons. I believed that a double standard was being applied under which complaints by minority voters were subjected to excessive and unpecedently demanding standards, then dismissed as not being credible, while on the other hand the Voting Section was being ordered to pursue the Noxubee complaints at face value — in a dispute over party loyalty — as a top priority I confided my view of this double-standard to Mr. Coates and to other management-level career staff. If I made the remark to Mr. Coates “Can you believe we’re doing this?” it was within this context. I did not protest this instance of what I believed to be a double standard to Mr. Schlozman or Mr. von Spakovsky because I was certain it would only prompt retaliation, against Section Chief Joe Rich, myself or other career employees.

Coates also defended Schlozman, a former Justice Department lawyer, in his testimony. Schlozman was previously found to have illegally hired career lawyers because of their conservative credentials.

Meanwhile, the Commission on Civil Rights meeting to approve the 2010 Enforcement Report focusing on the New Black Panther Party case — scheduled to take place on Friday — has been postponed until next week.

A Democratic member of the Commission, Michael Yaki, stated at a previous meeting that his conservative counterparts had “gone completely overboard” with their letter to Attorney General Eric Holder which stated that the Civil Rights Division is hostile to the “race-neutral enforcement of the civil rights laws.”

As Sam Stein points out “signs are already emerging that the findings will further whet conservative appetites.”

Joseph Hunt, the director of Federal Programs at the Department of Justice’s Civil Division, had written in a letter that excerpts of an early draft of the report contained various inaccuracies.

“Most importantly, if the report is released in anything like its current form, it will fail to provide a complete, objective or credible examination of the issues it addresses,” Hunt wrote.