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Civil rights group joins complaint from Wolf

Congressman worried that Justice Department dropped intimidation suit

By Garren Shipley - gshipley@nvdaily.com

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has joined a local congressman's effort to learn more about why the Justice Department withdrew from a case of alleged voter intimidation.

Commissioners wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last week, asking him to answer some fundamental questions about why the department dropped its case against the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense and two of its members.

According to court documents, two members of the group stood just outside the door of a polling place in Philadelphia on Election Day, shaking a nightstick and hurling racial epithets at voters while wearing paramilitary uniforms.

Lawyers for the Justice Department acted quickly and filed a civil suit in January -- in the last days of the Bush administration -- against the group and those involved, alleging illegal voter intimidation.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, has been pushing Holder for answers for months to no avail. Wolf is the ranking Republican member of the committee that oversees the Justice Department's budget.

The commission, chartered by Congress with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, is charged with investigating alleged incidents of civil rights violations and reporting to Congress.

Justice officials have said repeatedly that the facts of the case didn't support the prosecution.

"Following a thorough review, 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," spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler wrote in an e-mail last month.

Commissioners would like to know just what facts didn't support the case, according to the letter.

"The department's original complaint against NBPP and several of its members alleged serious acts of racially-targeted voter intimidation, some of which were captured on video and viewed by millions of Americans," the commissioners wrote.

Court documents show that the department was on a fast track to win the case; none of the defendants bothered to file a defense, or even show up at the courthouse.

But then in May, the department not only withdrew the complaint, winning only a limited injunction against King Samir Shabazz -- the man with the nightstick -- that blocked him from showing a weapon within 100 feet of any polling place in Philadelphia.

Justice officials told Wolf's office that the case was withdrawn in part because the federal courts in that area look poorly on default judgments.

That doesn't make sense, according to the commission's letter.

"When a court states that default judgments are disfavored, it doesn't mean the defendant should get away scot free for refusing to appear; it means that the plaintiff should present evidence of the defendants wrongdoing before the judgment is entered," they wrote.

Dismissing the case "sends a perverse message to the wrongdoers -- that attempts at voter suppression will be tolerated so long as the persons who engage in them are careful not to appear in court to answer the governments complaint," they wrote.

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