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Politicizing the Law
The Justice Department has sidelined an honest attorney for enforcing the law.


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Hans A. von Spakovsky

Eric Holder’s Justice Department has exiled Christopher Coates to South Carolina.   

Coates, you may recall, is a career attorney at Justice, the chief of the Civil Rights Division’s (CRD) Voting Section. More to the point, Coates recommended that the CRD file a lawsuit for voter intimidation against the New Black Panther party and several of its members, who were in paramilitary uniforms (one of them waving a nightstick) threatening elderly white voters at a polling station in Philadelphia during last year’s elections.

Political appointees at the Justice Department overrode Coates’s recommendation. They ordered him to dismiss the lawsuit against all but one of the defendants, even though they were in default because they did not defend themselves. The eventual injunction against the defendant with the weapon was laughably weak.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has opened an investigation of the unexplained dismissal. It has subpoenaed Coates, but Justice has ordered Coates not to appear before the panel. Indeed, the partisan Democrats running the Civil Rights Division have barred Coates and another career lawyer, Christian Adams, from providing any assistance to the commission or the Republican congressmen investigating the matter. What are they so afraid will be revealed?

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The decision to reassign Coates more than 450 miles outside the Capitol Beltway (and possibly out of range of that subpoena) was made by Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, an Obama political appointee. It’s virtually inconceivable that the move was made without consultation and approval from the highest offices of the Justice Department.

Washington today is infested with advocacy groups run by radicals who view the law — particularly federal civil-rights statutes like the Voting Rights Act — as a weapon to be used to further ideological goals, cement political control, and demonize political opponents. By contrast, fair-minded liberals and conservatives — at least those with whom I worked in the Civil Rights Division during the Bush administration — saw their duty as one of enforcing the law in a neutral manner within the narrow and objective strictures of federal statutes and case law. They did not assume the federal government had a monopoly on civil-rights virtue. They insisted that career attorneys recognize the proper role of the judiciary in what they asked courts to do. They recognized the need for restraint in certain investigatory activity lest the threat of federal power produce results that the law would not command.

Despite this conscious, principled adherence to “blind justice” and the constitutional role of the judiciary, some in the Bush Department of Justice found themselves accused of “politicization” when they tried to hire lawyers who would respect and carry out these principles. The radical Left simply could not tolerate a system in which the liberal ideologues who already predominated the career ranks in the CRD were not replicated in all hiring decisions.

The recent personnel action against Coates exposes the injustice (and hypocrisy) of the Left’s demagoguery. For all intents and purposes, the transfer was a demotion. A demotion for doing the right thing.

I got to know Coates well while I worked as a career lawyer in the Civil Rights Division. Given his liberal background and experience, you would think the ideologues now running the CRD would be happy with him.. For many years, Coates was a staff attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. There, he filed numerous lawsuits on behalf of minority voters across the South under the Voting Rights Act in the 1970s and 1980s. The civil-rights establishment so admired his work that he received the Thurgood Marshall Decade Award from the Georgia NAACP in 1991 and the Environmental Justice Award from the Georgia Environmental Organization in 1994.

The Voting Section hired Coates as a career trial lawyer in 1996. Clinton DOJ officials promoted him before they left office. Perhaps unfortunately for Coates, the Bush administration also promoted him — to chief of the Voting Section. That may have tainted him in the eyes of über-liberals.

Probably the most experienced trial attorney in the entire Civil Rights Division, Coates has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. At the Justice Department, he has brought numerous cases on behalf of Americans from every walk of life and every religious and ethnic background. In 2007, he earned the division’s second-highest award, the Walter Barnett Memorial Award for Excellence and Advocacy. He received numerous Special Achievement and Meritorious Performance Awards — some during the Clinton administration..


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