The Battle for Voting Rights

Sometime during Christmas week, Christopher Coates, the chief of the Voting Rights Section of the Justice Department, was quietly reassigned to an 18-month detail in the U.S. attorney's office in Charleston, South Carolina. Coates, a longtime career attorney in the Civil Rights Division, became head of the Voting Section in 2007. The previous head, John Tanner, left in 2007 in the midst of an uproar over racially inflammatory remarks.

Outraged conservatives quickly accused the Obama administration of reassigning Coates in order to cover up its dismissal of a voter-intimidation case involving the New Black Panther Party that Coates supervised. Hans von Spakovsky, former counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights under the Bush administration with a history of pushing for voting restrictions that disproportionately harm minority voters, said it was another sign of the Obama administration enforcing civil-rights laws on an "ideologically and politically biased basis." The conservative Washington Times headline blared "Justice Dept. Moves Panthers Pursuer to S.C."

This was not the first time the Civil Rights Division, of which Voting Rights is a part, has hit the headlines -- the division was widely criticized under the Bush administration. A joint report filed by the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility found that Brad Schlozman, who had been appointed to run the division, along with von Spakovsky and Tanner, regularly considered political affiliation when hiring career attorneys. According to the report, Tanner in particular complained that prior to the Bush appointees removing safeguards against politicized hiring, you had to be a "civil rights person" to work in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama blocked von Spakovsky's nomination to the Federal Election Commission saying von Spakovsky was "directly involved" in efforts to "disenfranchise voters" and "politicize" the Voting Rights Section.

A Government Accountability Office report released in December confirmed what veteran civil-rights lawyers who left the division over the past eight years had feared -- during the Bush administration, enforcement of civil-rights laws in employment discrimination, voting, and hate crimes fell across the board. It wasn't just about the cases: The racial atmosphere in the division was so hostile toward African Americans that by 2007, almost all the black lawyers in the division had left.

The New Black Panther voter intimidation case became an opportunity for conservatives to turn the tables on accusations of politicization. The battle for the soul of the Voting Rights Section didn't end with the new administration -- it continued, with conservatives in Congress and in the media waving the dismissal of the New Black Panther case as prima facie evidence that Democrats were politicizing the Justice Department.

Coates wanted to pursue the Black Panther Case, which became a rallying cry among conservatives. The Washington Times printed one-sided articles alleging politicization within the Voting Rights Section. Republican Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas and Frank Wolf of Virginia accused the administration of engaging in a "cover-up." In the Senate, Republicans used the New Black Panther case as an excuse to hold up Obama's nominee to head the Civil Rights Division, Thomas Perez. The now right-leaning U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), dominated by Bush appointees who are ideologically opposed to the division's traditional role of protecting minority rights, began investigating the dismissal of the Black Panther case and subpoenaing Justice Department lawyers. At a December American Constitution Society event, Thomas Perez, now confirmed as head of the Civil Rights Division, seemed to fire back at conservative critics, saying, "Those who had been entrusted with the keys to the division treated it like a buffet line at the cafeteria, cherry-picking which laws to enforce."

At first glance, Coates' extensive experience with voting rights -- he first worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and later the Justice Department -- made him look like just another career attorney. But Coates' current and former colleagues at the Justice Department say Coates underwent an ideological conversion shortly after a black lawyer in the Voting Rights Section, Gilda Daniels, was promoted to deputy section chief over him in July of 2000. Outraged, Coates filed a complaint alleging he was passed up for the job because he is white. The matter was settled internally.

"He thought he should have been hired instead of her," said one former official in the Voting Section. "That had an impact on his views … he became more conservative over time."

Coates' star rose during the Bush administration, during which he was promoted to principal deputy section chief. While not mentioned by name, Coates has been identified by several current and former Justice Department officials as the anonymous Voting Section lawyer, referred to in the joint Inspector General/Office of Professional Responsibility report, that Schlozman recommended for an immigration judge position. Immigration judges have jurisdiction over whether or not foreign nationals are deported. In his letter to Monica Goodling, a former senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who was implicated in the scandal involving politicized hiring, Schlozman wrote of Coates:

Don't be dissuaded by his ACLU work on voting matters from years ago. This is a very different man, and particularly on immigration issues, he is a true member of the team.

At the heart of the New Black Panther case was Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which offers legal protections against voter intimidation. It had only been used once prior to the Bush administration -- in 1992 to prevent a statewide voter-suppression effort initiated in South Carolina by then-Sen. Jesse Helms. In this case, the Bush administration wanted to use Section 11(b) against several New Black Panthers who had stood in front of a polling place in a black neighborhood, one of whom wielded a baton.

"There was no pattern and practice, no concerted effort to cage thousands of voters like in the [1992] Jesse Helms case," said Gerry Hebert, a former senior Voting Rights Section attorney who has served under multiple administrations. "That strikes me as the kind of large-scale voter-suppression case that would be more appropriate for Justice Department resources to be spent on."

The Bush administration filed two Section 11(b) cases, both on behalf of white voters, both supervised by Coates: the Black Panther case and a separate case in Noxubee, Mississippi. The Voting Rights Section had gone from ensuring voting rights for all Americans to focusing on the conservative bugaboo of "reverse racism."

A December report from Ryan J. Reilly of the legal publication Main Justice revealed that the now conservative-dominated USCCR had subpoenaed Coates and another Voting Section attorney, J. Christian Adams, to testify before the commission regarding the New Black Panther case. Adams is a straightforward ideologue, hired during the Bush era of politicized hiring. Having previously worked as a volunteer for the Republican National Lawyers Association, Adams has written pieces praising "tea party" activists and compared President Obama to Nazi appeasers. He was one of the lawyers assigned to the New Black Panther case.

Shortly after the report in Main Justice, von Spakovsky, who was at the center of the politicized hiring scandal at the Bush Justice Department, took to the pages of National Review to defend Coates and Adams and attack Thomas Perez, for not honoring the USCCR's subpoena. Two members of the USCC, Peter Kirsanow and Abigail Thernstrom, have also written for National Review, where the New Black Panther case has become a frequent topic of conversation.

According to Voting Section employees, the racially hostile atmosphere -- and for the most part, the politicization of the section -- that had existed during the Bush administration dissipated with John Tanner's departure. For some in the section, the New Black Panther Case symbolizes a chapter in the section's history they would rather put behind them. Thomas Perez has declared the Civil Rights Division "open for business," slamming the Bush administration for its lax enforcement of civil-rights laws. Department veterans who left, like Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandez, are now trickling back. The atmosphere of "fear and retaliation" that once permeated the Voting Rights Section is gone. Last year saw the highest number of hate-crimes prosecutions since the last time a Democrat was in office. In many respects, the promises of change made by Obama as a candidate have fallen by the wayside. But not in the Civil Rights Division. Not in the Voting Rights Section.

On Tuesday, employees in the Voting Rights Section a held goodbye lunch for Coates. At the end of the lunch, employees went around the conference table expressing their appreciation to Coates. At the end, the attendees were startled when Coates pulled out a binder and began reciting a written defense of his decision to file the New Black Panther and Noxubee cases. Voting Section employees exchanged glances in disbelief.

"It felt like he was summing up to a jury," one attendee said.

Coates' replacement, Chris Herren, is a longtime career attorney with an encyclopedic knowledge of voting rights issues whom one Justice Department employee described as being "like Yoda with voting rights." Laughlin McDonald, head of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, and someone who has worked with Herron on voting rights issues for years, said "I can't really think of a better [choice] in that division."

As one Justice Department official put it, "It just feels like things are finally being righted."

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