During the Senate confirmation hearings for U.S. Attorney General this week, the things President-elect Trump’s designee Jeff Sessions said carry as much weight as the things he did not say.
Sessions did not acknowledge the nagging crisis of police violence or recognize problems of voter suppression. He did not speak to the need to promote fair housing or express commitment to fulfilling the unmet goals of Brown vs. Board of Education. Instead, what we heard were themes of “law and order.”
We heard that consent decrees addressing police reform were often “forced” on cities. We heard witnesses testify that Sessions’ notorious criminal prosecutions of civil rights activists in Alabama during his time as a former state prosecutor, were warranted and appropriate.
The testimony left the impression that Sessions, if confirmed, would turn a blind eye to discrimination, unravel existing Justice Department consent decrees concerning policing reform and, levy vote fraud prosecutions across the nation (though there is no evidence that such fraud truly exists).
Our nation is at a crossroads. Across the country, we have seen a spike in hate crimes and hate-inspired violence, police shootings continue to stand as a threat, and voter suppression is on the rise. The nation needs an attorney general who will, at bare minimum, maintain the progress achieved by the office’s most recent occupants, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. That individual must be someone who is willing to acknowledge and recognize discrimination and someone committed to being a champion for the rights of minorities.
In measuring Jeff Sessions’ commitment to civil rights, his record truly speaks for itself. He has voted against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and opposed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. He has opposed bipartisan immigration reform and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
Most concerning however, is his record on voting rights. Safeguarding access to the ballot box requires recognition of the voting discrimination and voter suppression that we continue to see today. He has criticized the Voting Rights Act as an “intrusive” piece of legislation, and stated that voting discrimination no longer exists in places such as Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina.
This truly a remarkable fact as my organization, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Right Under Law, has filed voting rights cases in all of the states in 2016 alone. When the Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2013 gutting the Voting Rights Act, he described the decision as “good news” for the South. He has not condemned the fact that the three highest courts in his state are all comprised of White judges – an outcome that is the result of the at-large method of electing judges and the fact that voting discrimination persists today.
Equally concerning is his record on criminal justice issues. Over the past 8 years, the Justice Department has expanded its work to confront the problem of police shootings. In fact, the Justice Department’s work in Baltimore and Chicago stand as recent examples of this. Through the use of consent decrees in places such as Ferguson, Mo., the Justice Department has expanded its work to promote reform.
But Sen. Sessions condemned these kinds of investigations and touted a strong law and order platform during his nomination hearing.
One can’t rewrite history. In 1986, the Senate rejected and voted against Sessions who was nominated to serve as a federal judge. A bi-partisan group of senators voted against him finding “reasonable doubts” over his ability to be “fair and impartial.” That conclusion was based on various evidence presented ranging from his racially-driven prosecutions of the Marion Three, his reference to a former African-American colleague as “boy,’ his description of the NAACP and ACLU as “Communist-inspired” or the statement of opposition from Coretta Scott King who said that Sessions “confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made everywhere toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.” The fatal problems surrounding his 1986 confirmation loom over his nomination today and should lead the Senate Judiciary Committee to the same result.
While we await the outcome, it is important to register the many voices of dissent. We should also remember that this nomination season has not gone by without sacrifice. The NAACP’s President Cornell Brooks and a group of inter-racial supporters were arrested following a sit-in at Sessions’ Mobile office.
Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. John Lewis took the courageous move of testifying against Sessions, the first time in history that a sitting Senator has testified against another sitting senator. The stakes are high and this is a moment that calls for the Senators to decide whether they will co-sign the president-elect’s nomination, or fight back until they identify a nominee who does.
Kristen Clarke is President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law