"The notion that we are enforcing any civil rights laws -- voting or others -- on the basis of race, ethnicity or gender is simply false," Holder said.
For more than a year, Republicans and others have been questioning why the Obama administration reversed course on a federal lawsuit against two members of the New Black Panther Party, who were videotaped outside a Philadelphia polling station on Election Day 2008. The two were dressed in military-style uniforms, and one was holding a nightstick. The issue escalated after a former Justice Department attorney and, more recently, a current Justice Department attorney alleged it was all part of an Obama administration policy to avoid prosecuting minorities, an allegation the Justice Department has repeatedly denied.
Asked why a current Justice Department attorney would make such a claim about his own employer, Holder said, "I have no idea, but there's no basis in fact for that charge."
Speaking during an unrelated press conference in Washington, Holder said he's trying to fix the Justice Department, not politicize it.
"People have to understand the way in which ... the Civil Rights Division was run, and how it was politicized, and how hiring was done, and the way in which enforcement occurred," he said. "Some people want to go back to those old days and want to have a Civil Rights Division that is not nearly as effective as it is now or as it has traditionally been. I am not going to allow that to happen."
Holder said previous politicization of the Justice Department is "documented in inspector general reports from the past." In fact, a 2008 report by the Justice Department's inspector general said a top Civil Rights Division official "inappropriately considered political and ideological affiliations in hiring experienced attorneys" and "considered political and ideological affiliations in transferring and assigning cases to career attorneys."
Three weeks ago, the Justice Department's inspector general announced he would launch an investigation into "more broadly the overall enforcement of civil rights laws by the Voting Section" of the Civil Rights Division, including "information about cases such as the New Black Panther Party matter and others."
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, led by a conservative majority, are also looking into the matter.
In July, the former Justice Department attorney, current conservative blogger J. Christian Adams, told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights there was an "open hostility toward equal enforcement in a colorblind way of the voting rights laws."
Three weeks ago, Christopher Coates, a current Justice Department attorney who was heavily involved in the initial filing of the New Black Panther Party case, echoed that allegation, telling the commission there has been a "hostile atmosphere" within the Civil Rights Division "against race-neutral enforcement" of voting rights laws. Coates also said he attended a lunch meeting in September 2009, during which a top Justice Department official told those gathered that the Obama administration was only interested in prosecuting voting rights cases that would help minorities.
The Justice Department tried to block his testimony, citing "longstanding Department of Justice policy" to avoid disclosing "confidential internal deliberations."
After Coates' testimony, a Justice Department spokeswoman said the commission's "so-called investigation is thin on facts and evidence and thick on rhetoric."
"The Department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved," spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said in a statement. "We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation. ... We are committed to enforcing our nation's civil rights laws, and we are going to continue to do so without respect to politics."
She called the Bush administration's politicization of the Justice Department "a disgrace to the great history of the [Civil Rights] division," adding, "We have changed that."
In a letter sent to the commission in August, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez, pointed to "our ongoing work in Mississippi," where the Justice Department recently filed a motion to stop Democratic officials from discriminating against white voters.
But in his testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Coates said he believes the New Black Panther Party case was "gutted" because "the people calling the shots" at the time "were angry" at the filing of the Mississippi case and the New Black Panther Party case.
A month after the Justice Department won a default judgment against the two New Black Panther Party defendants in April 2009, the Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss charges against one of the men, saying a lack of sufficient evidence meant the case against him wouldn't stand up in court. The Justice Department successfully pursued an injunction against the man seen holding a nightstick. That injunction bars him from visiting a polling station in Philadelphia for the next two years.
On Monday, The Washington Post editorial page agreed, saying the Justice Department made the "right call."
"Much of the controversy that has surrounded this case for more than a year has been fueled by partisan hyperbole, conspiracy theories and misinformation," a Washington Post editorial said. "Far from acting recklessly, the Justice Department did what every law enforcement entity is ethically obligated to do: press only those charges that are supported by the evidence."