December 11, 2009 | Commentary on Legal Issues
The Justice Department's assistant attorney general for civil rights, Thomas Perez, testified before the House Judiciary Committee last week in an oversight hearing. He was sharply questioned about the department's dismissal of the voter-intimidation lawsuit it had won by default against the New Black Panther Party (NBPP). Rep. Steve King accused him of lying to the committee during a heated exchange with Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas) over the case. Perez certainly misled the committee.
He said that the decision to drop the case was made by two career attorneys with more than 60 years of combined experience. From my work in the Civil Rights Division, I happen to know almost all of the attorneys who were involved in this case -- and if the key to the correct decision was experience, Perez is in a lot of trouble. The lawyers who investigated this case and recommended filing suit have many more years of experience -- particularly recent experience in voting cases -- than the two lawyers Perez is relying on.
Those two lawyers, Steve Rosenbaum and Loretta King, are two of the worst political hacks to be found in the career ranks of the Civil Rights Division (I have previously written about King's ambition to run for office in Maryland on the Democratic ticket). But putting that aside, Rosenbaum hasn't worked on a voting case since he left the Voting Section in 1994. King hasn't worked on a voting case since she left the Voting Section in 1996.
In comparison, the career lawyers who investigated the NBPP case, along with the deputy chief and chief of the Voting Section who reviewed their work and recommended this lawsuit, have more than 75 years of experience between them. The section chief, Chris Coates, who was subpoenaed by the Commission according to news reports, has more litigation experience in voting cases than Rosenbaum and King combined, has argued voting cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and has litigated civil-rights cases for almost 40 years. He won the Walter W. Barnett Memorial Award, the second-highest award given by the Civil Rights Division. It is awarded for a leading role in major litigation and "extraordinary skill, dedication and integrity in written and oral advocacy."
The deputy chief who worked on this case, Robert Popper, and one of the trial attorneys, Christian Adams, have both won special commendation awards from the division. Adams's award was for his work in protecting black voters in Georgetown, S.C. And the aforementioned 75 years of experience does not even include the decades of experience of the head of the Appellate Section in the Civil Rights Division, who was apparently asked to review the work of the Voting Section in this case and also concluded a lawsuit was fully warranted.
In his testimony, Perez also twice claimed that Rule 11 mandated that the case be dismissed, referring to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 11 provides sanctions against lawyers who file frivolous and unwarranted lawsuits. To any lawyer, this is an incendiary allegation.
Yet Perez is trying to make it impossible for the career lawyers like Coates and Adams to defend themselves against the charge that they pursued a meritless case by forbidding them to speak about it to anyone, including members of Congress. Perez has even ordered them not to comply with subpoenas from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, despite the fact that the authorizing statute for the Commission specifically directs all federal agencies to "cooperate fully with the Commission."
Such charges -- charges that call into question their professionalism and ethics -- may ultimately force the attorneys involved in this case to reveal the truth as whistleblowers. That would no doubt be even more embarrassing to the officials who dismissed the case. Make no mistake: They did so for political reasons having nothing to do with the merits of the allegations against the NBPP.
Hans A. von Spakovsky is a visiting legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He is also a former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission and counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice. The Getman paintings will be on display at Heritage through December 10.
First Appeared in National Review Online