Atlanta, GA – Donald Trump’s decision to tap U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions to serve as Attorney General confirms that a Trump Administration will be just as divisive, intolerant, and extreme as the Trump campaign.
The Alabama Republican—deemed controversial enough in 1986 for the Republican-controlled Senate to sink Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship—has a disturbing record of discrimination and allegations of bigoted remarks and racially-motivated schemes.
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During his last set of confirmation hearings, before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions lost out on an appointment to the federal bench. Witnesses testified that the Alabama Republican had called major civil rights organizations “un-American,” used racially insensitive language with associates and even said pot-smoking was the only reason he no longer thought the KKK was OK. His nomination was withdrawn after two fellow Republicans crossed the partisan divide on the panel to disapprove of his confirmation.
The last time Jeff Sessions faced a Senate confirmation hearing, Judiciary Committee members in both parties blocked his nomination to be a federal judge after hearing accusations that he had called the NAACP “un-American” and addressed a black lawyer as “boy.” Thirty years later, Sessions is a senior member of the same panel and established himself as one of the chamber’s most conservative members, staking out hard-line opposition to illegal immigration, opposing trade deals and advocating deep spending cuts that at times have chafed fellow Republicans.
It was 30 years ago that Sessions was denied a federal judgeship. At the time, he was a 39-year-old US attorney in Alabama. The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony during hearings in March and May 1986, that Sessions had made racist remarks and called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.” Thomas Figures, a black assistant US attorney who worked for Sessions, testified that Sessions called him “boy” on multiple occasions and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying that he thought Klan members were “OK, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.”
Sessions has long been obsessed with the terrible travesty that is black people participating in democracy through the act of voting. He seems to find it unfair that Southern states like his own have been singled out for oversight by the Voting Rights Act, which he has referred to as “intrusive” legislation, when, he claims, discrimination because of skin color is “much more likely” to happen in northern cities like Philadelphia or Chicago.
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The tip of the problem was a 1984 case that came to be known as the “Marion 3” – Sessions’s prosecution of three civil rights workers over what he perceived as voting fraud. As Lani Guinier lays out in her book Lift Every Voice, before 1965 there were “virtually no blacks registered to vote in the 10 western Black Belt counties of Alabama”.
But by the 1980s that had started to change. Through the massive get-out-the-vote efforts of three leaders – including a former aid to Martin Luther King – black voter turnout began to creep toward 80%, and a handful of black legislators were elected. That’s where Sessions stepped in, charging three voting rights organisers with voter fraud. All three were quickly acquitted. Session’s choice to focus on their efforts looked a lot less like good governance and a lot more like voter intimidation.
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For starters, forget about aggressive protection of civil rights, and of voting rights in particular. Mr. Sessions has called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “piece of intrusive legislation.” Under him, the department would most likely focus less on prosecutions of minority voter suppression and more on rooting out voter fraud, that hallowed conservative myth. As a federal prosecutor, Mr. Sessions brought voter-fraud charges against three civil rights workers trying to register black voters in rural Alabama. The prosecution turned up 14 allegedly doctored ballots out of 1.7 million cast, and the jury voted to acquit.
Forget, also, any federal criminal-justice reform, which was on the cusp of passage in Congress before Mr. Trump’s “law and order” campaign. Mr. Sessions strongly opposed bipartisan legislation to scale back the outrageously harsh sentences that filled federal prisons with low-level drug offenders. Instead, he called for more mandatory-minimum sentences and harsher punishments for drug crimes. The one bright spot was his working with Democrats to reduce the 100-to-1 disparity between punishments for crack and powder cocaine offenses.
Sessions’ views on other minority groups are equally grisly. He opposes hate crime protections, marriage equality, and open military service for gay and transgender people. He rejects essentially all immigration reform, supports mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, and wants to build a wall along the Mexican border. He defends Trump’s Muslim ban. And he denies that grabbing women’s genitals without their consent constitutes sexual assault. (For the record: It does.)
Presuming Sessions is confirmed—and he almost certainly will be, given the Senate’s Republican dominance and the spinelessness of its “moderate” wing—these prejudiced beliefs will translate into an immediate rollback of civil rights. First, Sessions will immediately halt Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s groundbreaking efforts to protect transgender rights. Second, he will dramatically curtail the Justice Department’s use of the Voting Rights Act’s remaining provisions to protect minority suffrage. Third, Sessions will probably stop investigating possible instances of police brutality and discrimination. Fourth, he will likely reverse Lynch’s vigorous implementation of the Violence Against Women Act, allowing funds to dry up for grant programs that help states combat domestic violence. Fifth, he can use his vast law enforcement apparatus to target, surveil, and intimidate Muslim communities with no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
Sessions was one of the 22 Republican senators who opposed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. The bill aimed to broaden the reach of domestic violence programs to include new protections for LGBT and Native American victims of domestic violence.
… Sessions has consistently voted against abortion rights, and has been heavily criticized by pro-choice activists. “The last person women and families need in this job is someone who has repeatedly given a pass to individuals who commit acts of violence against abortion clinics, doesn’t take sexual assault seriously, and was determined to be too racist by a GOP-led Senate to become a federal judge,” Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement. “But that’s who Jeff Sessions is. His record of misogyny and racism makes him unfit to be the country’s top lawyer. The American people deserve far better, but with Donald Trump at the helm, we know we won’t get it.”
But Sessions—once deemed “the most racist man in the Senate”—has been among Donald Trump’s most fervent loyalists. A Confederate flag devotee, he was on the campaign, early and hard, when others flat out refused to be caught in the same room with the former real-estate developer. Where others had shame, Sessions beamed with pride.
… Sessions, who is staunchly anti-immigration, can be counted on to help Trump build that wall, institute a ban on Muslim immigration altogether or create the legal perimeters for a federal registry. We can expect Sessions to find legal justification for any and all of Trump’s bigoted schemes.