Justice To Probe Decision To Drop “New Black Panther” Voter Intimidation Case

The Justice Department’s internal ethics unit has opened an investigation into the decision to drop a voter intimidation complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party, the Washington Times reported yesterday.

In a letter sent late last month, Mary Patrice Brown, who runs DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility, told Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) that OPR had “initiated an inquiry into the matter.”

On Election Day 2008, two members of the New Black Panthers were filmed standing outside a Philadelphia polling place, one of them wielding a night stick. The footage was featured prominently on Fox News, which used it to suggest intimidation of white voters.

In January, the Justice Department filed a civil complaint against the New Black Panther Party, charging that the two men, wearing combat boots and black jackets with military insignias, had intimidated voters with racial insults, slurs and the nightstick.

But in May, the complaint was dropped, with little explanation. That decision set off aggrieved protests from conservatives, as David Weigel of the Washington Independent has detailed. Smith claimed yesterday: “The Justice Department’s decision to drop a case against political allies who allegedly intimidated voters on Election Day 2008 reeks of political interference.”

That seems to go way too far. First of all, a Justice Department spokeswoman told the Independent it has obtained an injunction prohibiting the man who brandished the night stick from doing so again, and added: “The top career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division determined that the facts and the law did not support pursuing the claims against three of the defendants.”

Also, it’s not obvious why the Obama DOJ would feel compelled to intervene on behalf of a group of fringe activists — the New Black Panthers don’t even have a formal tie to the Black Panther party that became famous in the 1960s — or in what sense the men can even be considered “political allies.”

Finally, it’s not clear who the men sought to intimidate. As Weigel wrote, Obama won the precinct over McCain by 596 to 13. In 2004 and 2000, George W. Bush won 24 and 8 votes respectively. So the intimidation effort doesn’t seem too have been too well targeted.

Beyond that, well have to wait for the results of the OPR investigation, if they’re released publicly.

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