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Jeff Sessions Would Gut Civil Rights Enforcement

January 20, 2017

Kristen Clarke

President and Executive Director



As a former attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, I appreciate the critical role of this federal agency. I saw first-hand the impact that hostility to the mission can bring to the work.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Civil Rights Division. Launched after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the division enforces federal civil rights laws and protects our nation’s most vulnerable communities. The pending nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to serve as attorney general threatens to gut the work of the division.

There are two areas of grave concern that persist following his nomination hearing.

First, the Justice Department’s work to address unconstitutional policing practices has been transformative and among the division’s most important work. However, Sessions expressed no meaningful recognition of policing problems gripping the nation. With 18,000 law enforcement agencies across our country, the Justice Department has focused on a small share of outliers. The need for a federal response is clear. The Justice Department’s work on policing reform has helped a few select communities and, more importantly, provided needed models of reform. Since 2012, the Justice Department has entered into 19 new agreements in cities such as Baltimore, Ferguson and New Orleans. These agreements help restore police-community relations and bypass the need for long and costly litigation. Most importantly, these agreements help address the crisis of unwarranted police shootings and excessive use of force. However, Sessions has made clear his opposition to these consent agreements and has described them as an abuse of federal authority. Sessions’ stance threatens to unravel important, resource-intensive work that the Justice Department has driven to propel reform in this area.

With respect to voting rights, Sessions had the opportunity to set the record straight. Instead, he provided no indication during his hearing that he would work to defend voting rights. As a former state attorney general, he leveraged the power of his office to pursue vote fraud charges against African-American voting rights activists in Alabama. These notorious prosecutions against a group, now known as the “Marion Three,” had a chilling effect on elderly black voters across the Black Belt. If confirmed, Sessions could abuse his position to levy similar prosecutions against minority voters across the country. With false claims of vote fraud to fuel his efforts, Sessions could also abuse the platform of the office to promote voter suppressions efforts, including government-issued photo ID requirements.

In a powerful statement of opposition, Coretta Scott King urged the Senate to reject the 1986 nomination of Sessions for a federal judgeship, expressing concern regarding Sessions’ voting rights record and fear that Sessions would unravel the legacy underlying her husband’s important work. A bipartisan coalition of senators heeded her warning and rejected his judgeship then. Members of the Senate should not turn a blind eye to this history now.

Further illustrating his hostility toward the Voting Rights Act were some of his first official actions as attorney general of Alabama in 1994. Sessions urged the Eleventh Circuit to reject a settlement that had been negotiated by the parties in a case concerning the method of election used for the state’s three highest courts. No African-American has been elected to the state’s Supreme Court, Civil Appeals or Criminal Appeals Courts in more than 20 years, though they make up more than 25 percent of the population. Racially polarized voting has resulted in the consistent defeat of candidates backed by African-American voters. This past September, my organization, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, filed a new federal lawsuit seeking to finally bring those courts into compliance with the Voting Rights Act. Sessions has never addressed this injustice or taken any meaningful action to promote compliance with the Voting Rights Act in his state.

Sessions has attempted to portray himself as a champion of civil rights throughout hearings but this has proven fully disingenuous. In response to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questionnaire, Sessions listed the “ten most significant litigated matters that [he] personally handled.” He identified a school desegregation case and three voting rights cases as among the most important. However, statements from the attorneys who worked on these cases showed that Sessions had no “substantive involvement in any of them.” Following the release of an editorial from the attorneys who actually worked on those cases, including Joseph Rich, an attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Sessions submitted a supplemental statement in which he backpedaled the claim.

Beyond policing reform and voting rights, concerns persist. Sessions fiercely opposed the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. He stood against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. He has opposed efforts to promote judicial diversity and bitterly opposed immigration reform. In 2006, he stated that “no one coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States is coming here because they have a provable skill that would benefit us and that would indicate their likely success in our society.”

I listened carefully to Senator Sessions during his nomination hearing. I listened for some understanding of the challenges now gripping the nation, such as voter suppression, unconstitutional policing, redlining, hate crimes, fair housing violations, disability rights issues, LGBT bias, or gender discrimination. But those statements never came. We need an attorney general who will bring to bear a commitment to preserving the 70-year mission of the Civil Rights Division. Sessions, in no shape or form, brings the requisite commitment to civil rights enforcement that any American would expect from one serving in this critical role.

—Kristen Clarke, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law


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