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The Secret History of the New Black Panther Case

Adam Serwer has a must-read piece on the case against the New Black Panther Party, the thuggish fringe group whose members were detained on Election Day 2008 for waving nightsticks outside of a mostly-black, mostly-Democratic polling place in Philadelphia. The Panthers themselves stopped being an issue long ago; the source of conservative consternation is the decision of Obama-appointed lawyers to drop the case. The story there is more interesting than a few Washington Times editorials have let on.

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.”

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