DOJ probe says Panthers case handled appropriately

AP News
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Posted: Mar 29, 2011 8:26 PM
DOJ probe says Panthers case handled appropriately

In a case that has drawn strong criticism from Republican conservatives, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility has found no evidence that politics played a role when department attorneys dismissed three defendants from a voting rights lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party.

OPR, which investigates allegations of attorney misconduct, concluded that the government lawyers' work on the lawsuit in 2009 was based on a good-faith assessment of the law and the facts and had a reasonable basis.

"We found no evidence of improper political interference or influence from within or outside the department" and the government attorneys acted appropriately in the exercise of their supervisory duties, OPR said in a letter Tuesday to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

"We found no evidence to support allegations _ which were raised during the course of our investigation _ that the decision-makers, either in bringing or dismissing the claims, were influenced by the race of the defendants," OPR's letter added.

The lawsuit stemmed from complaints that New Black Panther Party leaders intimidated white voters at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day in 2008.

Two lawyers who formerly worked in the department's voting rights section of the civil rights division have described what they called hostility from senior officials and career attorneys to pursuing Voting Rights Act violations against minorities alleged to have harassed white voters.

Two weeks before the Obama administration took office in January 2009, the department sued Minister King Samir Shabazz, Jerry Jackson, Malik Zulu Shabazz and the New Black Panther Party alleging voting act violations.

The government was required to satisfy a federal judge that the relief it was seeking _ a nationwide injunction against each of the four defendants _ was both necessary and appropriate under the facts and the law.

In May 2009, the acting leadership of the civil rights division decided not to pursue a default judgment against the two national defendants _ the party and its president, Malik Zulu Shabazz _ and one of the two individual defendants, Jerry Jackson. In addition, the civil rights division decided to pursue more narrowly tailored injunctive relief against the remaining individual defendant, King Samir Shabazz.

In the letter to the House Judiciary Committee chairman, OPR counsel Robin Ashton also said that the decision to bring the case in the first place _ while the Bush administration was still in office _ was based on a good- faith assessment of the facts and the law, with no evidence that political considerations were a motivating factor.

OPR said it did not attempt to evaluate the relative merits of the differing positions in bringing the case and then narrowing it.

Smith said OPR's review did not address the civil rights division's "misguided policy of using racial considerations when determining whether to enforce voting rights laws."

The congressman said the Justice Department's inspector general is investigating whether the division has used race as a litmus test for the enforcement of voting rights laws. He promised that the judiciary committee he chairs will conduct a thorough review.