WASHINGTON-Defying the Department of Justice's order not to testify, former DOJ voting section chief Christopher Coates took the stand before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Friday and upbraided the agency for its unequal voting law enforcement. Coates, who worked on the New Black Panther case that the agency effectively dropped, called the agency's handling of that case a "travesty of justice."
Coates, originally a President Clinton appointee who worked in the voting section for 13 years, testified that Civil Rights Division leadership under President Obama instructed voting section lawyers not to pursue cases against minorities. He said the section caved to pressure not to pursue the New Black Panther case from civil rights groups like the NAACP.
Furthermore, Coates said he was ordered not to ask potential hires if they were willing to enforce the law in a race-neutral manner, as that was given to imply potential prosecution of minorities.
"Enforcing the Voting Rights Act in a racially selective manner or choosing not to enforce certain provisions of federal voting law is not in compliance with the oath we have taken," Coates said.
His testimony lined up with the allegations made by former Civil Rights Division attorney J. Christian Adams, who resigned from the voting section in May, frustrated with what he saw as unequal enforcement of the law. Adams had testified about those issues before the commission previously. "It was a relief that the rest of the country now knows the truth," he told me after the hearing.
Coates waited to speak because he had hoped that the DOJ would allow him to testify: "I'd rather be here with their permission than without, as I am." He added that previous testimony from the current Civil Rights chief, Tom Perez, was "not factually accurate" (not that Perez was lying under oath, but Coates doesn't believe Perez was aware of the facts) and that the agency hadn't provided the full story in its statements. Coates did not believe he was "professionally, ethically, legally, much less morally bound" to sit "silently by." He claimed federal whistleblower protections, which could shield him from professional retaliation, but the commission chair, Gerald Reynolds, noted Coates appeared "at great personal risk to himself."
He had been transferred to the U.S. Attorney's office in South Carolina in 2009 and the agency would not allow him to comply with the commission's subpoena. On Wednesday, Coates wrote a letter to the commission saying he planned to testify.
The allegations of unequal enforcement go beyond the dropping of a voter intimidation case that took place on Election Day 2008, when two New Black Panthers stood in uniforms outside a Philadelphia polling station, with one carrying a nightstick and reportedly shouting racial slurs. Coates said the department also was not pursuing cases at state levels where voter rolls needed to be purged.
"They'd rather leave 100 people on that are ineligible than run the risk of taking one person off who was eligible," Coates said. "The consequence of it is to favor in certain jurisdictions the Democratic Party. . . . But I don't claim that that is the motivation."
The DOJ's inspector general recently opened an investigation into the voting section to see whether it has enforced the law equally and without harassing or intimidating lawyers.
To download and read Christopher Coates' complete testimony, click here.