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Civil Rights Commissioners Rebut Thernstrom



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My conservative-leaning colleagues on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and I have issued the following joint statement in response to certain assertions made by Abigail Thernstrom about the New Black Panther Party matter.

Our fellow member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Abigail Thernstrom, has asserted in various media outlets that the Commission’s investigation into the Justice Department’s handling of the New Black Panther Party matter is a politically-motivated attempt to damage President Obama. Commissioner Thernstrom told Politico last week, “This doesn’t have anything to do with the Black Panthers; this has to do with their [conservative-leaning commissioners’] fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the [Obama] administration.” “My fellow conservatives on the Commission had this wild notion they could bring Eric Holder down and really damage the President.”

We decline to comment here on Commissioner Thernstrom’s motives for making these statements or for any other votes or positions she’s taken recently. For the record, however, not one of the undersigned Commissioners made the statements attributed to us by Commissioner Thernstrom. Nor have we harbored such sentiments.

Not only is this accusation baseless, it deflects attention from the serious allegations of wrongdoing within the Department of Justice both in connection with the New Black Panther Party case and more broadly. Predictably, her statements have been seized by some to diminish the importance and credibility of the investigation.

The Commission is charged by Congress with the responsibility for issuing at least one report each year on an issue of the federal enforcement of civil rights laws. This year our enforcement topic is the Department of Justice’s handling of the New Black Panther Party voter intimidation case.

The Commission’s investigation was prompted solely by what a majority of Commissioners (including, at one time, Commissioner Thernstrom) perceived as the unusual circumstances surrounding the New Black Panther Party case. We were and continue to be concerned about the Justice Department’s decision to dismiss charges as to three of the four defendants after there had already been an entry of default against all of them as well as the decision to pursue an extremely narrow remedy against the remaining defendant. The Justice Department’s initial response to members of Congress and the Commission — that the facts and circumstances of the case did not constitute voter intimidation — made the dismissal more significant because that seemed to signal an erroneous and potentially problematic change in voter intimidation enforcement policy. In inquiring into the motivations behind and the future implications of those decisions, we are doing our job.

Indeed, the evidence adduced so far suggests that our disquiet over that case may have been justified. At this point, former Department of Justice attorney J. Christian Adams has testified under oath to a culture of hostility to the race-neutral enforcement of the law within the Civil Rights Division. “I was told by Voting Section management that cases are not going to be brought against black defendants for the benefit of white victims,” he said, “that if somebody wanted to bring these cases it was up to the U.S. Attorney, but the Civil Rights Division wasn’t going to be bringing it.” Adams testified that instruction was communicated to the Voting Section management by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes. He further testified from personal knowledge that Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes addressed the attorneys in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division, saying that Section 8 of the National Voter Registration Act, which attempts to prevent voter fraud, would simply not be enforced by the present Administration. “‘We have no interest in enforcing this provision of the law, he quotes her as saying. “‘It has nothing to do with increasing turnout, and we are just not going to do it.’” “I was shocked,” he said. “It was lawless.”

Even our colleague Michael Yaki, the Pelosi-appointee to the Commission, has agreed that if such statements were in fact made, someone should be fired. Yet Commissioner Thernstrom declined to vote at our meeting of July 16 to support efforts to obtain the testimony of the one witness — Justice Department career attorney Christopher Coates — who could confirm or deny the allegations. She continues to belittle the investigation in the media.

Gerald Reynolds, Chairman
Peter Kirsanow, Commissioner
Ashley Taylor, Commissioner
Gail Heriot, Commissioner
Todd Gaziano, Commissioner



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