Smooth-Talking Jeff Sessions Can't Hide Disturbing Record
Although Jeff Sessions' confirmation as attorney general of the United States by the GOP-controlled Senate is a foregone conclusion, it is still important to analyze his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Thus far, the hearing has shed a troubling light on his positions.
In his responses to the senators' questions, Sessions loudly protested the idea that he has ever embraced racism, homophobia or sexism. Calling allegations of racism "incredibly painful," Sessions assured the senators, "I abhor the Klan and all it represents." However, that has not always been the case. He once joked that he thought the KKK was "OK until I found out that they smoked pot."
Sessions' record speaks louder than his testimony.
Sessions' Racism and Opposition to Voting Rights
When Trump announced his nomination of Sessions for attorney general, David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeted his support.
Sessions is notorious for calling a Black attorney "boy" and prosecuting three civil rights organizers, including a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr., for voter fraud in 1985. The bogus prosecution of the "Marion Three" was designed to discourage voting rights for poor and elderly people in several "black belt" Alabama counties. The three were acquitted by a jury after just three hours of deliberation. Their charges could have garnered them 100 years in prison.
The Marion Three case and other examples of Sessions' racism figured prominently in the refusal of the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee to confirm Ronald Reagan's nomination of Sessions for federal district court judge in 1986.
After Sessions testified Tuesday, The New York Times editorial board wrote:
[Sessions'] defense against charges of racism that caused the Senate to reject him for a federal judgeship in 1986 was largely to say it hurt his feelings to be called a racist, but his two decades in the Senate provide little hope that he has changed.
During his testimony, Sessions admitted he had called the Voting Rights Act "intrusive." In 2013, after the Supreme Court issued a decision in Shelby County v. Holder, that struck down the section of the act that established a formula for preclearance of jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination, Sessions called it "a good day for the South."
NAACP president Cornell Brooks testified at Sessions' hearing that the Voting Rights Act "is regarded as the crown jewel of civil rights." Since the Shelby decision, Brooks added, "we've seen nothing less than a Machiavellian frenzy of voter disenfranchisement from one end of the country to the other."
Brooks noted that violations of the act are litigated after they occur, citing the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that North Carolina had "targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision."
Sessions is a strong supporter of voter ID laws that disenfranchise many otherwise eligible voters. When Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) asked, "Do you agree with Trump that millions of fraudulent votes were cast?" Sessions replied, "I do believe we regularly have fraud." But, as Franken correctly noted, "Bogus claims of voter fraud are routinely used to uphold voter suppression."
As President Barack Obama said in his farewell address to the nation, "We should be making it easier, not harder, to vote."
Sessions' Anti-Immigrant Sentiment
Sessions has voted against every comprehensive immigration reform bill. After Obama issued an executive order shielding "DREAMers" from deportation, 800,000 people came out of the shadows. Sessions was asked whether he would deport those people, as Trump will likely reverse Obama's order. Refusing to pledge that he would not deport them, Sessions said, "We need to enter a dialogue on how to compassionately treat" them.
But, as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) told Sessions, "There is not a spot of evidence in your public career to suggest that as attorney general you would use the authority of that office to resolve the challenges of our broken immigration system in a fair and humane manner."
In June 2016, Sessions called Islam a "toxic ideology." He opposed a resolution to keep a person's religion out of immigration decisions and supports the "extreme vetting" of immigrants.
The incoming Trump administration's anti-Muslim sentiments are one of its critics' key concerns. Obama's biggest applause line in his farewell address came after he said he rejects "discrimination against Muslim Americans."
Sessions' Animus Toward Women and LGBTQ People
Sessions' mantra during the hearing was that he would "enforce the law," even upholding laws that protect reproductive and LGBTQ rights.
But Sessions admitted he once said, "I firmly believe that Roe v. Wade and its descendants represent one of the worst, colossally erroneous Supreme Court decisions of all time."
Sessions opposed the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and hate crimes protections for LGBTQ people and he voted to ban same-sex marriage.
He opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which allows women to file ongoing pay discrimination claims.
He opposed Title X funding legislation that supports contraception, breast cancer screening and other health services for low-income women.
And Sessions repeatedly voted to defund Planned Parenthood and opposed reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.
Sessions' Likely Priorities
At one point in the hearing, Sessions noted, "It's not the attorney general's job to decide which laws to enforce." However, it actually will be his job to set guidelines for prosecutors to determine which charges to bring and what cases to file. In light of finite resources, the attorney general cannot enforce every law and must therefore set priorities.
Sessions opposes consent decrees that mandate reform of law enforcement agencies accused of a "pattern or practice" of violating civil rights. To its credit, Obama's Justice Department under both attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch conducted several high-profile investigations into police misconduct in Ferguson, Baltimore and Cleveland. We cannot expect Sessions' Justice Department to follow suit.
A long-time prosecutor before joining the Senate 20 years ago, Sessions supports draconian mandatory minimum sentences that remove discretion from judges to tailor sentences to the individual and fuel mass incarceration that disproportionately targets people of color.
At the hearing on Tuesday, when Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) asked Sessions whether he would bring federal charges against people using medical marijuana sanctioned by state law, Sessions would not promise to defer to the states. In April 2016 Sessions had said, "Good people don't smoke marijuana."
Waterboarding and Torture
The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) is a division of the Department of Justice, which provides legal advice to the president and all the executive branch agencies. As head of the Justice Department, Sessions would oversee and have the power to replace the head of the OLC. It was OLC lawyers, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who wrote memos advising the Bush administration on how to illegally torture people and get away with it.
Sessions has favored waterboarding, stating, "it worked" in extracting information. Waterboarding has long been considered torture, and leading FBI interrogators have debunked Sessions' claim, saying a person will say anything to get it to stop. Sessions admitted in his testimony this week that waterboarding is now "absolutely improper and illegal" as Congress has outlawed it, although he voted against that legislation.
Guantanamo should be kept open to incarcerate terrorism suspects, Sessions testified. "It's designed for that purpose," he said. "It fits that purpose marvelously well. It's a safe place to keep prisoners. We've invested a lot of money" in it. He neglected to mention that detainees at Guantanamo have been illegally indefinitely detained, tortured and abused. And the prison has become a symbol of US hypocrisy on human rights and served as a recruiting tool for would-be terrorists.
A Dangerous Choice for Attorney General
"If you have nostalgia for the days when Blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, immigrants were invisible and women stayed in the kitchen, Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is your man," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) said in a statement issued after Trump tapped Sessions for attorney general. "No senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants and people of color than Sen. Sessions."
Sessions once called the NAACP and the ACLU "un-American." Last week, the NAACP engaged in a sit-in at Sessions' office in Alabama, protesting his nomination.
On December 1, 2016, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 144 human rights and civil rights organizations sent an open letter to the US Senate, saying "Sessions has a 30-year record of racial insensitivity, bias against immigrants, disregard for the rule of law, and hostility to the protection of civil rights that makes him unfit to serve as the Attorney General of the United States."
And 1,424 law professors from 180 different schools in 49 states (Alaska doesn't have a law school), including this writer, signed a letter to Senators Charles Grassley and Dianne Feinstein of the Senate Judiciary Committee, stating, "Nothing in Senator Sessions' public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge."
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Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild and on the advisory board of Veterans for Peace. Her books include Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law; The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse and Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Visit her website: MarjorieCohn.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MarjorieCohn.