Blackpanthergate?—Now that he is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith (R-TX) is positioned to act on his claim that the Obama Justice Department dismissed a voting rights suit filed by the Bush DOJ because someone in the Obama administration was sympathetic to the defendants.

What’s to investigate?

On election day in 2008, two members of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense showed up outside a polling place in an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia. One of the men, Minister King Samir Shabazz, was carrying a nightstick. The other was unarmed. Shabazz shouted racial epithets at white voters. Police officers arrived at the polling place and ordered Shabazz to leave. He complied.

A Republican poll watcher videotaped and posted the incident on the Internet, where the clip of two antagonistic black men was seen by 1.5 million viewers.

Eleven days before Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, lawyers from the Bush administration DOJ filed suit against the New Black Panther Party (a small extremist fringe group repudiated by the original Black Panthers), its chairman, and the two men involved in the incident in Philadelphia. When the defendants failed to respond to the complaint, a federal judge entered a default order.

In May 2009, the Obama administration DOJ dismissed claims against three of the four defendants and scaled back the injunctive relief originally requested against Shabazz. He was enjoined from displaying a weapon within 100 feet of a polling place, with the court maintaining jurisdiction over him through November 15, 2012.

Fox News immediately reran its 2008 election-day footage from Philadelphia, shot after Shabazz had left the polling place. Producers added an incendiary clip of Shabazz standing on a Philadelphia street, declaring his hatred of white people (crackers) and shouting: “if you want freedom, gonna to have to kill some crackers.”

The Weekly Standard picked up the story, using DOJ sources who claimed that Obama political appointees gave the New Black Panther Party preferential treatment. The argument was advanced by right-wing news outlets, and repeated in a report released by the (Republican dominated) U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

It is an interesting story, if it were true.

The “political appointees” who scaled back the lawsuit were Loretta King and Mark Rosenbaum, veteran litigators who had served under both Bush administrations, and were acting administrators until Obama’s appointees were confirmed.

J. Gerald Hebert, a public-interest lawyer who has served as the acting chief of the voting rights section and the deputy chief of litigation, disagrees with the claim that a lawsuit was abandoned because of political pressure.

“You had this videotape of this guy standing in front of the polling place with a billy club,” Hebert said in an interview, “and the department didn’t have any evidence that a single voter was intimidated by this conduct.” Nor were there any patterns and practices regarding the NBPP, Hebert said.

Hebert — who works with the National Voting Rights Coalition — said numerous reports of widespread voter intimidation had been referred to the Bush DOJ and ignored.

Another flaw in the story spun out by conservative reporters involves Chris Coates, a former DOJ voting section attorney who has been openly critical of the decision to limit the lawsuit. Right-wing news sources add credibility to their story by describing Coates as a “former ACLU lawyer.”

Yet Coates had moved so far right in the years since he worked with the ACLU that he was embraced by the head of the Bush Justice Department Civil Rights Division, Bradley Scholzman, whose partisan and ideological hiring practices were described by the DOJ Inspector General as a violation of the Civil Service Reform Act.

“Don’t be dissuaded by his ACLU work on voting matters from years ago,” Scholzman wrote of Coates, who was in line to be appointed as an immigration judge “This is a very different man, and particularly on immigration issues, he is a true member of the team.”

Facts notwithstanding, Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith is on the case.

“We’ve already seen this administration dismiss one case against a political ally — the New Black Panther Party — for no apparent reason,” Smith wrote in a letter, managing to both smear the Obama administration and mislead the public in one sentence.

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