DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Which Did Not Prosecute New Black Panthers, Is ‘Conscience’ of Nation, Holder Says

June 4, 2010 - 5:03 PM
Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, is the "conscience of our nation" and that he has restored its primacy within the department during his first year on the job.

In this photo provided by AP Images for The National Association of Drug Court Professionals: Attorney General Eric H. Holder, center, is named an honorary Drug Court judge by Missouri Chief Justice Ray Price, left, as National Association of Drug Court Professionals CEO West Huddleston, right, looks on, during the opening session of the NADCP 16th Annual Training Confernce, Thursday, June 3, 2010, in Boston. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP Images for The National Association of Drug Court Professionals)

(CNSNews.com) – Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is the “conscience of our nation” and that he has restored its primacy within the department during his first year on the job.
 
The division, which handles "hate crimes" and voter rights cases, has come under scrutiny for failing to prosecute a group of New Black Panthers who allegedly engaged in voter intimidation and racial insults outside a Philadelphia polling station on Election Day 2008.
 
Holder was addressing the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)  on Friday when he attested to the importance of the Civil Rights Division’s mission, and the importance of applying the law impartially. “(W)e have restored the department’s Civil Rights Division to its proper place as the conscience of our nation and our country’s pre-eminent civil rights law enforcement agency,” Holder said.
 
“The communities that we serve must see that the federal government is really committed to the impartial and aggressive enforcement of our nation’s laws, and these communities must know that we will do all that we can to enforce the law that protect our civil rights with the same vigor that we enforce the laws that protect our public safety.
 
“These are not, as I have often said, mutually exclusive goals – the Justice Department will do both.”
 
Despite those comments, Holder dismissed default judgments that the Bush Justice Department had filed against Malik Shabazz and Jerry Jackson in January 2009.
 
The suit alleged that Shabazz, a member of the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (NBPP), “managed, directed and endorsed” the incident, in which Jackson and a third defendant, Samir Shabazz, wore NBPP uniforms that included “black berets combat boots, bloused battle dress pants, rank insignia, (NBPP) insignia, and black jackets.”
 
Samir Shabazz also was accused by the Bush DOJ of having “brandished a deadly weapon,” described as a nightstick, and “pointed it at individuals” while the polls were open for voting in the presidential election.
 
Jackson accompanied Samir Shabazz throughout that activity, and both “made statements containing racial threats and racial insults” and made “menacing and intimidating gestures statements and movements directed at individuals who were present to aid voters.”
 
When the defendants did not respond to the complaint from the federal government, the Bush DOJ won default judgments against Jackson and Malik Shabazz, but Holder’s DOJ chose to dismiss them in May 2009. 
 
After no explanation came from the Obama Justice Department on the decision for nearly a year, a trial attorney from the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division chose to resign over the dismissal, because he had been subpoenaed for an investigation into the matter without adequate explanation from DOJ on how to respond. 
 
Trial attorney J. Christian Adams wrote his May 14, 2010 resignation on the heels of a subpoena to appear before the fact-finding U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has launched an investigation into the matter.
 
Adams also complained of the NBPP defendants having “become increasingly belligerent in their rhetoric toward the attorneys who brought the case.”
 
Holder’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, Thomas Perez, appeared before the commission, also on May 14, and defended the decision by describing it as a mere dispute between career lawyers working beneath the political appointees. The decision to dismiss the cases was made before Perez was confirmed by the Senate and in place.
 
Holder praised Perez in his comments on Friday, saying his assistant “has made it a priority to transform the Civil Rights Division to tackle the civil rights challenges of the 21st century.
 
“Over the last year, the division has made substantial and meaningful progress towards bringing the promise of equal opportunity to all Americans, and I look forward to building on that work.”
 
Holder also assured ADC members attending the convention that hate crimes cases would be a priority of the Obama administration, and that it was working hard on a crime against Muslims in Florida.
 
“Among the Civil Rights Division’s many goals … there is one issue in particular that I know is of particular importance to many of you, and that is combating hate crimes. For this administration, and for today’s Department of Justice, the prosecution of hate crimes is a top priority.”
 
The Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, passed by Congress in 2008, has allowed the DOJ “to address and to eliminate hate-fueled crimes around the nation,” Holder added, “and we are working to train attorneys and law enforcement officers in its aggressive enforcement.
 
“Already, we have several investigations open under the new law, and I want you all to know that we are currently working with local law enforcement to investigate the recent pipe bomb attack on a Florida mosque.”
 
A pipe bomb exploded during evening prayers at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida on May 10. No one was injured inside the Jacksonville mosque, but police and the FBI are investigating it as a possible hate crime.
 
“This case is a top concern for the FBI,” Holder said.
 
The following is a partial transcript of Attorney General Holder’s comments:
 
Holder: The communities that we serve must see that the federal government is really committed to the impartial and aggressive enforcement of our nation’s laws, and these communities must know that we will do all that we can to enforce the law that protect our civil rights with the same vigor that we enforce the laws that protect our public safety. These are not, as I have often said, mutually exclusive goals—the Justice Department will do both.
 
Now, under my leadership, that is the commitment of the Justice Department and of every United States Attorney throughout this nation. It is also my personal pledge to each and every one of you.
 
But what exactly have we done to assure the equal enforcement of our nation’s laws? Well, first, we have restored the department’s Civil Rights Division to its proper place as the conscience of our nation and our country’s pre-eminent civil rights law enforcement agency.
 
Now, Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, who I understand is with us somewhere here today, yes?
 
ADC: Yeah, he has not arrived yet.
 
Holder: He’s on his way. Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, who will be with us today, and who will be speaking with you tomorrow, has made it a priority to transform the Civil Rights Division to tackle the civil rights challenges of the 21st century. Over the last year, the division has made substantial and meaningful progress towards bringing the promise of equal opportunity to all Americans, and I look forward to building on that work.
 
But it’s not enough to say that the division will simply be more active. The real question is to what end will it dedicate its resources and its energy? Well, so long as I am Attorney General, that answer is pretty simple. We will dedicate our resources and our energy to enforcing the law neutrally and fairly and to working to provide all Americans with an equal opportunity to pursue their dreams. That is what civil rights enforcement is all about.
 
Among the Civil Rights Division’s many goals—ensuring fair housing and lending, disability rights, education opportunity and more—there is one issue in particular that I know is of particular importance to many of you, and that is combating hate crimes. For this administration, and for today’s Department of Justice, the prosecution of hate crimes is a top priority. We are employing new tools afforded to us by the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2008 to address and to eliminate hate-fueled crimes around the nation, and we are working to train attorneys and law enforcement officers in its aggressive enforcement.
 
Already, we have several investigations open under the new law, and I want you all to know that we are currently working with local law enforcement to investigate the recent pipe bomb attack on a Florida mosque. This case is a top concern for the FBI.