From The Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic Staff
Jeff Sessions has never been regarded as a champion of civil rights, but President-elect Trump’s team has advised Senate Republicans and others to promote Sessions’ “strong civil rights record.” This can be seen in Sessions’ response in his Committee questionnaire, where he lists three civil rights cases that he had little personal involvement in handling as among his ten “most significant litigated matters” that he “personally handled.”
“The Attorney General of the United States is charged with ensuring the fair, impartial and equal administration of Justice for all Americans. Senator Sessions’s record is replete with examples of his disrespect for laws and programs and laws intended to protect all Americans, his disregard for the basic civil, human, and Constitutionally-guaranteed rights of all people, and his disdain for groups with when he may disagree. In light of his record, we submit that he is simply incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities inherent in the office of Attorney General of the United States.”
Cornell Brooks, President and CEO of the NAACP
“Sen. Sessions has opposed bipartisan consensus reforms of the criminal justice system’s most troubling features, including unduly harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, the forfeiture of property without due process from entirely innocent individuals, and the dragnet suspicionless surveillance of law-abiding Americans. The Senate should ask whether someone so far outside the mainstream on criminal justice should be put in charge of the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agency.”
– David Cole, National Legal Director of the ACLU
Sessions’ Actual Record on Civil Rights
- Undermining the Voting Rights Act: Sessions likes to tout that he voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2006 (the Senate vote to reauthorize the Act was 98-0), but the truth is that he has systematically undermined the VRA at every turn, questioning the constitutionality of Section 5 and celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the VRA.
- During Sessions’ failed 1986 confirmation hearing for a federal judicial appointment, he called the VRA an “intrusive piece of legislation.”
- After the Senate passed the VRA reauthorization in 2006, Sessions joined other Republicans in issuing a highly unusual Committee Report that sought to undermine the same legislation that they had all just voted to support. The report raised questions about the constitutionality of the VRA reauthorization’s extension of the pre-clearance requirement under Section 5 of the VRA. Chief Justice Roberts cited to the report in his Shelby County opinion, where he concluded that the coverage formula for the pre-clearance requirement “is now unconstitutional.”
- After the Shelby County decision, Sessions stated: “Shelby County never had a history of denying the vote, certainly not now. There is racial discrimination in the country, but I don’t think in Shelby County, Alabama, anyone is being denied the right to vote because of the color of their skin.”
- Sessions celebrated the Shelby County decision, and stated that it was “good news” for the South. And since the decision, despite the passage of numerous voting restrictions in several states by Republican legislatures, Sessions said that “I don’t think that the Supreme Court ruling has damaged voting rights in any real way.”
Since Shelby County, Sessions has made no effort to introduce or join legislation to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, including the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, which has bipartisan support in the House, and the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, which has bipartisan support in the Senate.
- Defense of the Confederate Flag: Sessions has defended the use of the confederate flag even when other Republicans have not.
- In the wake of the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina church shooting – Alabama Governor Robert Bentley followed South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s lead, removing four confederate flags from Alabama’s state capitol in Montgomery. Sessions did not criticize those decisions, but said that “a lot [of] our good citizens feel like [the confederate flag] was kind of commandeered” as an “idea of anti-civil rights,” and that he was “sensitive” to that point of view.
- He further stated that he was not a fan of any attempt to “erase history” and that “This is a huge part of who we are and the left is continually seeking, in a host of different ways, it seems to me, I don’t want to be too paranoid about this, but they seek to delegitimize the fabulous accomplishments of our country.”
- Reduction of Crack-Cocaine Sentencing Disparity: Sessions and his supporters also continue citing his role in passing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Because more than 80 percent of crack cocaine offenders have been African American, this disparity disproportionately harmed the African American community.
- The truth is that Sessions was only willing to reduce the sentencing disparity to 18:1, when other Republicans were willing to reduce it to 10:1.
- TAdditionally, Sessions supported replacing crack cocaine mandatory minimums with more powder cocaine mandatory minimums.
- TSessions further led the opposition to the new law’s retroactive application, even though there was a growing bipartisan agreement that thousands of people (including a disproportionate number of African Americans) were serving overly harsh and unjust sentences, and deserved to be able to petition judges on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they should be able to benefit from the reduced sentencing disparity.
- TSince then, Sessions has continued to lead the opposition to sentencing reform, including the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (which is supported by Republicans Chuck Grassley, John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham, and Mike Lee).
- School Desegregation: Despite his 2009 claim of filing “20 or 30 civil rights cases to desegregate schools” in Alabama, no evidence on record shows that Sessions filed any such cases during his tenure as U.S. Attorney, or Attorney General of Alabama.
- No new school desegregation cases were filed while Sessions was U.S. Attorney. By the time Sessions became U.S. Attorney in 1981, nearly every school in Alabama was under a desegregation order.
- In fact, as Attorney General of Alabama, Sessions opposed a state lawsuit by 30 of Alabama’s poorest school districts claiming that inequitable funding of their schools was unconstitutional. When Alabama Circuit Court Judge Eugene Reese ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Sessions sought to overturn the ruling by arguing that Judge Reese had overreached. The Alabama Supreme Court disagreed and upheld Judge Reese’s ruling that unequal funding to the poorest school districts was unconstitutional.
- In 1996, Attorney General Sessions wrote a stern letter to lawyers representing two historically black state universities in a major desegregation case. The case aimed to improve facilities and academic offerings at state universities, including the historically black state universities. In the letter, Sessions expressed his concern “about attorneys for state universities stating legal positions contrary to the positions of the government and other state defendants.” In response, the lawyers strongly disagreed with Sessions, arguing that their clients had “views of the case that differ radically from those of the state,” Attorney General Sessions, and the Alabama governor. The lawyers further questioned whether Sessions’ request “is consistent with the independent obligations of [their] clients [the historically black universities] to comply . . . with the United States Constitution.” See Mary Orndorff, “Lawyers for Black Colleges Question Sessions’ Letter, Birmingham News (Sept. 14, 1996).
- Prosecution of KKK Members: Sessions claims that as U.S. Attorney, he “worked to solve the murder” of Michael Donald, a young African American man kidnapped and murdered in Mobile, Alabama by two members of the Ku Klux Klan (Henry Hayes and Tiger Knowles). Sessions further claims that “[b]ecause the federal government did not have an enforceable death penalty at the time,” he “insisted” that state prosecutors seek the death penalty through a state conviction. Both were ultimately convicted.
- Contemporaneous reports suggest that “[t]he case lay dormant” for nearly two years “until the Justice Department began a civil rights investigation that gained momentum.” See Garry Mitchell, The Associated Press (June 16, 1983).
- It was Mobile County District Attorney Chris Galanos who prosecuted the state case and vigorously sought the death penalty, telling the state judge that the murder was a “crime of racial hatred.” Ordinarily, U.S. Attorneys have no authority to instruct state attorneys to prosecute someone on state grounds, nor do there appear to be any contemporaneous news reports to support Sessions’ claim that he pressured state attorneys to seek the death penalty.
- Sessions has also shown racial insensitivity on the subject matter of the KKK. In 1986, Sessions informed the Judiciary Committee that during this investigation he told the DOJ Civil Rights Division Attorney, Barry Kowalski, that he believed the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions claimed that he was joking, but Thomas Figures, an AUSA who was present when the remark was made, testified he did not regard the matter as a joke.
- Failure to Investigate Race-Based Militia Groups and Church Burning in Alabama: As Alabama Attorney General, Sessions repeatedly refused requests to investigate Alabama militia groups, church burnings, and other racially motivated acts of violence. See Frank Sikora, Birmingham News, “Sessions Says Militias ‘No Real Threat’ In State,” May 9, 1995.
- In 1995, Sessions received a request from Morris Dees, then-Chief Trial Counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, to take legal action and shut down paramilitary groups. Sessions’ response to the request stated that “militia groups in Alabama pose no real threat to the state or to its citizens.” This comment was made shortly before church burnings in the South gained national attention.
- In addition, then-State Senator Hank Sanders (D-Selma) expressed frustration that Attorney General Sessions had not investigated the burning of churches in “Mount Zion, Mount Zoar and Little Zion Baptist churches in Greene County.”
- After a February 1996 shooting at Sumter County Circuit Judge Eddie Hardaway’s home in Livingston, Alabama, State Senator Sanders again expressed frustration that local authorities hastily dismissed investigations into racially motivated acts of violence. The judge himself believed the attack was “racially motivated.” However, Sessions later termed the shooting as a “personal matter” rather than the result of racism.
Sessions’ Extreme Anti-LGBTQ Record
- In 1996, as Alabama Attorney General, Sessions relied on an anti-sodomy promotion law that was later determined to be unconstitutional in an effort to block an LGBTQ educational student conference from being held at a state university.
- There was growing consensus among Sessions’ staff prior to the Court’s decision that the Alabama law was unconstitutional, but Sessions continued to use the law to bully and intimidate LGBTQ Alabamians.
- Judge William Pryor, who was Sessions’ Deputy Attorney General, stated that he refused to participate in the case because he agreed with the District Court’s decision regarding the constitutionality of the law and rights of the LGBTQ Americans to hold the conference at the school.
- Despite this, Sessions told the media at the time: “I intend to do everything I can to stop the conference.”
- Senator Sessions has been a staunch opponent of marriage equality.
- Sessions was extremely critical of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, where the Court held that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry the person they love. Sessions opined that the ruling “is part of a continuing effort to secularize, by force and intimidation, a society that would not exist but for the faith which inspired people to sail across unknown waters.”
- In 2006, Senator Sessions voted in support of a Constitutional amendment that would explicitly ban same-sex marriage. In 2014, after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in United States v. Windsor, Sessions cosponsored a bill that would have permitted a state to define marriage as between a man and a woman – superseding the federal definition.
- Senator Sessions opposed the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down Texas’s law that made it a crime for two individuals of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct.
- Sessions called the decision “troubling, with far reaching ramifications.”
- Sessions has argued that there was no constitutional right to liberty and privacy for same-sex couples and that the Supreme Court’s decision had been based on judicial activism and politics rather than the Constitution.
- Sessions strongly opposed the Matthew Shepard and James L. Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
- Sessions voted against and staunchly opposed this law, which extended federal hate crime protections to people victimized because of their sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, or disability.
- He argued at the hearing for the legislation that it was unnecessary because women and LGBTQ individuals do not face serious discrimination, stating that: “today I am not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination. I just don’t see it.”
- Sessions opposed the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the discriminatory military policy that excluded gay and lesbian servicemembers from serving openly.
- In a floor speech, Sessions stated that repeal of the policy was “dangerous. To say this is not going to have a corrosive impact on the men and women in the military is a mistake. I think it is being raised up in importance and being raised up in the potential to damage the military by the fact that it is being rammed through before a fair and objective review of the policy is conducted…”