DOJ's Internal Watchdog Announces Investigation Into Civil Rights Enforcement

The Justice Department's internal watchdog said Monday it would launch an investigation into the Justice Department's enforcement of civil rights laws, eliciting praise from Republicans on Capitol Hill who have been blasting the Justice Department for months over a controversial voting rights case.

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 in June when a former Justice Department attorney, J. Christiam Adams, alleged it was all part of an Obama administration policy to avoid prosecuting minorities, an allegation the Justice Department has strongly denied.

On Monday, the Justice Department's Inspector General said his office does not have legal authority or jurisdiction to investigate the handling of the New Black Panther Party case specifically, but it does have authority to look "more broadly [at] the overall enforcement of civil rights laws by the Voting Section," including "information about cases such as the New Black Panther Party matter and others."

"This review will examine, among other issues, the types of cases brought by the Voting Section and any changes in these types of cases over time; any changes in Voting Section enforcement policies or procedures over time; whether the Voting Section has enforced the civil rights laws in a non-discriminatory manner; and whether any Voting Section employees have been harassed for participating in the investigation of prosecution of particular matters," Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote in a letter to House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Lamar, R-Tex., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., two outspoken critics of the Justice Department's handling of the New Black Panther Party case. "We believe that our review of these issues will address many of the issues raised in your recent letters to me."

In response, Smith issued a statement saying he was "pleased" to learn that Justice Department investigators will be looking into the issue.

"Recent allegations of politicization within the Justice Department raise serious concerns," he said. "In order to preserve equality under the law, we must ensure that the Justice Department enforces the law without prejudice. I look forward to seeing the results of Inspector General Fine’s review of this matter."

In his letter, Fine emphasized that his office's unwillingness to look into the New Black Panther Party case is motivated solely by the law, not "by any hesitancy to investigate the Department's senior political leadership." In addition, Fine noted that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Reponsibility, which does have authority to investigate such a case, is "near the end" of its investigation into the New Black Panther Party case.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, led by a conservative majority, has also been investigating the case.

In July, Adams, the former Justice Department attorney, testified that there was an "open hostility toward equal enforcement in a colorblind way of the voting rights laws," and that "as told to me" senior officials within the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division directed "we weren't going to do" cases against black defendants.

During a Commission hearing in August, Democrat Michael Yaki called Adams' testimony "not credible," insisting, "There was sworn testimony by one individual, who's no longer an employee, about a statement by another individual who said he heard it from a third individual."

In a letter sent to the commission in August, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, Tom Perez, said the Justice Department "is firmly committed to the evenhanded application of the law, without regard to the race of the victims or perpetrators of unlawful behavior."

"Any suggestion to the contrary is simply untrue," Perez wrote, pointing to "our ongoing work in Mississippi," where the Justice Department recently filed a motion to stop Democratic officials from discriminating against white voters.

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.