Former DOJ Lawyer Alleges Racial Bias, Resigns
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
If you follow news of the legal profession or any of the conservative media outlets, then you've probably heard the name J. Christian Adams. He was an attorney in the civil rights division of the Justice Department, but he recently resigned, claiming the department is not living up to its mission to provide equal justice.
Needless to say, Justice Department and even some other conservatives say his complaints are overblown and reflect little more than the traditional change of priorities that comes with a new administration. But because his complaints have been given wide exposure in some media circles, we thought it important to understand what the controversy is all about. J. Christian Adams will be with us in a few minutes. And later, we'll hear from NPR's Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
It all started with an incident on Election Day 2008. Two members of the new Black Panther Party showed up at a polling location in Philadelphia in a majority black neighborhood. Now, some people might recognize that group's name. It's in essence a black nationalist fringe group that sometimes shows up at public events wearing military style attire and berets. In Philadelphia they said they were providing security. One of the men was holding a nightstick. A Republican poll watcher who was carrying a camera confronted the two men and recorded the encounter. We'll listen to some of that now.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Man #1: Who are you with?
Unidentified Man #2: Security.
Unidentified Man #1: Okay.
Unidentified Man #2: I mean, I think they know about it already.
Unidentified Man #1: I mean, I'm not I have a poll watcher certificate so I can go inside.
Unidentified Man #2: I'm just wondering why everybody's taking pictures. That's all.
Unidentified Man #1: I think it might be a little bit intimidating that you have a stick in your hand. That's why.
Unidentified Man #2: Who are you...
Unidentified Man #1: I mean, that's a weapon. So that's why I'm a little worried.
Unidentified Man #2: And who are you to decide?
Unidentified Man #1: I mean, I am a concerned citizen and I'm just worried that you might be...
Unidentified Man #2: So are we. That's why we're here.
Unidentified Man #1: Okay, but you have a nightstick in your hand.
MARTIN: In the video the man carrying the nightstick is King Samir Shabazz and next to him is Jerry Jackson. The video went viral after the election. And we'll note right here that no voters have come forth to say they were discouraged from voting or were intimidated by these two men.
J. Christian Adams was an attorney at the Justice Department at the time that this incident and the resulting video were made public. He pursued a formal civil case charging voter intimidation using a rarely used provision of the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department eventually decided to narrow the case against the New Black Panthers and Mr. Adams resigned. He's with us in the studio today to tell us more about it. Welcome and thank you for joining us.
Mr. J. CHRISTIAN ADAMS (Attorney): Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Now, I do want to explain that the Justice Department initially pursued the case and then in May of last year the case was narrowed and the case against one man was dropped. Why was this case dropped or what were you told about why the case was dropped?
Mr. ADAMS: Well, the department has said that the facts in the law did not support the case. As I have said under oath, this is the easiest case. I mean, there's plenty of evidence that this was a violation of federal law. And don't forget, this is also important. Federal law bans the attempt to intimidate. Because of the Clan activities in the South in the '60s, the attorney general wanted to have a law that will not allow the Clan to get away with a rally at the polls that kept everybody away.
And so the law also mans the attempt to intimidate. And I think anyone who sees the video can see that that was going on.
MARTIN: What do the supervisors say or did you ever attempt to talk to your supervisors about why the case was dropped?
Mr. ADAMS: The voting section chief and the supervisors talked to the assistant attorney general. And the message was that the facts in law did not support the case.
MARTIN: Your testimony, though, before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which is investigating this case - and I do think it is fair to mention that it has a six-member majority appointed by the Bush administration - says that you never talked to your supervisors directly about this case.
Mr. ADAMS: That's inaccurate. On May 13th, in fact, we did. I did not directly talk to them prior to the dismissal, but after the dismissal. That's correct.
MARTIN: Let me just say what the DOJ statement was and we'll post this on our website just so that people can read it for themselves. It's rather lengthy. It says the department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party involved. We're committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of both the civil and criminal provisions of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation. And we continue to work with voters, communities and local law enforcement to ensure that every American can vote free from intimidation, coercion and threats.
And on this particular case it says: The department sought and obtained an injunction against the individual who brought a nightstick to the polling place on Election Day. This was the only defendant known to have brought a weapon to the Philadelphia polling place during the election. After a thorough review, the top career attorney in the civil rights division determined that the facts and the law, as you said, did not support pursuing claims against the other defendants in the case. And a federal judge determined that the relief requested by the department was appropriate. You don't agree.
Mr. ADAMS: There's a falsehood number of falsehoods in that statement. First is the federal judge made no rulings whatsoever. They present that statement as if the judge weighed in. He didn't. And they know that's not true. The second thing is that the injunction sought against the one person was greatly reduced. It expires in 2012 and he can go anywhere else in the country with a weapon except for the city of Philadelphia.
There's a third falsehood in it. And that is that Jerry Jackson, the tall Black Panther, was acting in concert at the polling place with the man with the nightstick. Together with the man with the nightstick, they sought to block people from entering the polls. There's sworn, under oath, eyewitness testimony of that fact.
MARTIN: But there were not voters. These individuals were - this young man who was hired by the Republican Party as a poll watcher. So the persons that they were barring, as you say, from entering the polls, were they voters or were they similarly situated individuals like them?
Mr. ADAMS: It was both. But let's talk about the similarly situated individuals.
MARTIN: No, let's talk about the voters.
Mr. ADAMS: Okay.
MARTIN: Because the statute is designed to protect voters...
Mr. ADAMS: It's designed also to protect poll watchers. That's in the statute. So that's something the public needs to understand 'cause that's the law.
Mr. ADAMS: And Jerry Jackson was blocking people who were protected by the statute. He was acting in concert with the man with the weapon.
MARTIN: But what's the purpose, in your view, why does this case deserve further prosecution beyond that which the department has already sought? That's the question.
Mr. ADAMS: So many people gave their lives in this country, whether in the Civil War or during the Civil Rights Movement to make the polling place sacred. We all agree with that. That's the most important issue here is, are we free to go to the polls in this country and not have armed members, whether they're from the Clan, the Aryan Nation or the New Black Panthers trying to block people are protected under federal law. And I only hope and pray that the answer to that is we aren't going to let this happen again.
MARTIN: You testified before the Commission on Civil Rights. You suggested that there is an open hostility to race neutral enforcement of the Voting Rights, by which you mean that officials at DOJ, in your view, refuse to bring cases against black perpetrators. Now, those are your words. What's your evidence beyond this case? Or is this case your evidence?
Mr. ADAMS: No.
MARTIN: Sounds like a rather damning charge. I think you would agree. You would agree with that that's very...
Mr. ADAMS: No question about it. And I testified under oath that we were told this, and that's reality. There's a case this week that will shed some light on this question. It's called U.S. v Ike Brown. It's a case in Mississippi that your network has covered before. And the United States won that case against a black Democratic Party leader who was discriminating against white individuals.
He has now submitted a submission under the Voting Rights Act to allow him to do more of this. Will the department object to the submission or not? No, they probably won't. And if they do not object, it'll be perfectly clear to people that they don't think this provision of the Voting Rights Act should be used to protect white victims.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with J. Christian Adams. He's a former attorney in the Department of Justice. He alleges racial bias is at the root of a decision. Do you think it's still fair to say racial bias?
Mr. ADAMS: An unwillingness to enforce the law in a race neutral fashion.
MARTIN: And to drop a case of alleged voter intimidation by a group called the New Black Panther Party. It took place at a polling place in November of 2008 in Philadelphia. That case has gotten a lot of attention in the conservative media. And we're talking more about it.
I want to ask you about the whole question of priorities, I mean, the Bush administration, many people criticized the Bush administration for not pursuing cases where there were black people or Hispanic people who were perceived themselves or who were deemed to be victims of bias or voter intimidation.
For example, there was a report by the Equal Justice Initiative recently saying that blacks are routinely barred from juries in a number of states for reasons that turn out to be specious. Two cases successfully litigated on those grounds. But those were not pursued by you or anybody else in the division at the time.
So why wouldn't that failure to pursue those kinds of cases, could reasonable people say, well, the Bush administration was biased against black and Latino people based on that?
Mr. ADAMS: I'm not here to defend the Bush administration. I brought as many cases I could to help African-Americans, whether it was in Georgetown County, South Carolina; Lake Park, Florida; Hollywood, South Carolina. I mean, my record on that is one of vigorous enforcement.
But, you know, it's not just anti-white, it's Asian, too. I mean, this is a situation where Asians are not necessarily going to enjoy the full protection of the Voting Rights Act in some instances with this interpretation. I think all of us can agree that equal enforcement of the law is a priority. It doesn't matter who doesn't do it. We all want the law to be enforced equally.
MARTIN: But the Bush administration is relevant here in that the inspector general at the Department of Justice, who is a nonpartisan, who serves across administrations, says that the civil rights division had specifically sought out conservative partisans. His report said that the hiring process was improperly influenced by politics, that political and ideological considerations were inappropriately brought to bear.
And a former Justice Department official confirmed to the main justice that you were hired during that period under this process that, as we have noted, has been deemed to have been improperly influenced by politics. And I further have to tell you that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that if he had known about this conduct, he would not have tolerated it.
Could reasonable people then say that perhaps that was your motivation for being at Justice, that you were brought in as a conservative partisan to advance a certain agenda? Do you think that's a fair understanding of your role there?
Mr. ADAMS: Well, first of all, there's plenty of other people that know what I'm saying is the truth, some of whom are under subpoenas. So it's not all about me. Secondly, if anyone looks at my employment records, my reviews, all of which are posted at Pajamas Media...
MARTIN: Which is a conservative media outlet, I think you would agree with that. We'd all agree with that, wouldn't we?
Mr. ADAMS: No, no, no, no. These are my actual Department of Justice employment reviews. That's not a conservative...
MARTIN: But your employment reviews were performed by the very people who are deemed to have used politics to hire persons in that time period.
Mr. ADAMS: That's incorrect. That's incorrect. My performance review, you can read it, is signed by Loretta King, the person who dismissed the Black Panther case.
MARTIN: Okay, fair point.
Mr. ADAMS: And you could read my performance reviews and you will see an abiding pursuit of equal justice. I take this very seriously, that the equal protection clauses in the 15th Amendment were purchased at the greatest cost of human life of any part of the Constitution. Too many people died in the South to get voting equality that I simply that's what motivates me. Nothing else motivates me but equality.
MARTIN: So why did you resign then, if you felt that you were effective as an advocate across ideological and racial lines?
Mr. ADAMS: Well, obviously I can do those same things in private practice, which I fully intend to do. You don't have to work in the Justice Department to pursue justice.
MARTIN: I do want to mention that we reached one of your former colleagues, Mr. Ashish Agarwal, former deputy assistant attorney general in civil rights division. He said you were a model attorney who vigorously enforced federal voting rights laws on behalf of all voters without respect to race or ideology. He also says that he can't speak specifically to the comments and testimony you've made about the Department of Justice because he left prior to the Obama administration taking over.
So I do think it's fair to point that out. We did do that independent reporting. And at the root of this is before we let you go, and you've been very generous with your time and we do appreciate your coming in. But at the root of this is the integrity of the process. I think we would all agree with that. The bipartisan Commission on Election Reform, which was co-chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker, said that there really isn't a broad pattern of either of the complaints that are brought by both Republicans and Democrats. So I wanted to ask, do you think that that's legitimate?
Mr. ADAMS: Yeah. This is important. There does not need to be a widespread activity in other areas for this particular instance in Philadelphia to violate federal law. And so whoever's right or wrong about those larger issues was never my concern. It was does this violate the law, what's happening with men with weapons in front of polls? And that's all that mattered to me was the law and the facts.
MARTIN: What's next for you?
Mr. ADAMS: Listen, I don't know. I am unemployed. You know, I gave up I was at the top of the federal pay scale. I had been promoted many times. I loved what I did. I wish I was still there. But I'll just have to find my way. This is America, so all will be well.
MARTIN: J. Christian Adams is a former attorney in the Justice Department. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. ADAMS: Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.