Sherrilyn Ifill: Coretta Scott King was right about Senator Sessions then and her words remains true now
His 40 years in public life have been spent going up against anyone who isn't white, straight, or male, writes Ifill
Editor’s Note: Sherrilyn Ifill is the President & Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. The views expressed in this commentary are hers.
Over the past fifty years, America has made real, but at times rocky, progress in creating an America for the many and not just the few. But, as Senator Cory Booker so eloquently explained in this week’s hearing on the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, “the arc of the moral universe does not naturally curve toward justice, we must bend it.”
Civil rights laws – from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act of 2009 – have been instrumental in bending the arc of this country. Among the most important of these civil rights laws is the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice and made the attorney general the chief enforcer of the nation’s civil rights laws.
This awesome responsibility makes the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to serve as attorney general among the most audacious and unfortunate of the President-elect’s cabinet picks. We have now had two full days of hearings on Senator Sessions, and it is still hard to imagine a nominee with a more troubling record on race, gender equality, LGBTQ rights or immigrant protection than Jeff Sessions.
In 1986, Coretta Scott King remarked in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Alabama, Sessions engaged in a “shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters” when he unsuccessfully prosecuted “the Marion three,” who were black civil rights activists in rural Alabama. Indeed, over his 40 years in public life, Sessions’ record represents an unbroken line of hostility towards civil rights. As a senator, he has denigrated lawyers from civil rights organizations seeking federal judgeships, voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and against the extension of the Hate Crimes Act to cover LGBTQ victims.
For 10 hours on Tuesday, Senator Sessions encouraged his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee to ignore his words, his actions and even the history of this very same committee that in 1986 rejected his nomination for a federal judgeship. No matter his efforts to charm or deflect, Sessions did little more in the hearings than attempt to reassure his colleagues, “You know me,” – a personal appeal that the members of the Judiciary Committee should resist in fulfilling their constitutional “advise and consent” function.
His Senate colleagues questioned Sessions closely on civil rights, but he managed to offer nothing that suggests he understands the pain victims of discrimination face. He spoke powerfully about the morale of police but neglected to acknowledge the communities like Ferguson and Baltimore where the Department of Justice showed that a perversion of law enforcement and the criminal justice system was used to prey on minorities and people of color.
In fact, under questioning by members of the committee, Senator Sessions demonstrated little knowledge of and showed little empathy for the plight of Native American women who have experienced sexual violence, victims of sex trafficking who seek abortions or black voters denied the right to vote by unconstitutional voter identification laws. Yet these would be the very populations he would be entrusted with protecting as attorney general.
Sessions has been lauded for his repeated statement that he would “follow the law” – words that are essential for anyone seeking to serve as attorney general. This reassurance offers little comfort to those who strongly doubt Sessions’ willingness to do so, given past statements showing prejudice against members of the LGBTQ community, his belief – even stated forcefully at the hearing – that Roe v. Wade is unconstitutional and his history of targeting black voters for prosecution. In fact, Sessions offered little to suggest that he fully understands the responsibility of the attorney general.
To follow the law is only the minimum we would expect from any law enforcement officer. The attorney general must lead.
Thus, Senator Sessions’ statement in 2003 that a state attorney general should decide whether to defend a state law by employing what he called “the throw-up test” is relevant. According to Sessions, “If you can defend your state’s law in court without throwing up, you should do it.” It’s worth noting that the law in question was a statute that denied the right of state funds and use of state facilities to a gay and lesbian student organization at an Alabama university. The statute was struck down unanimously by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Is this how Sessions would discharge his duties as attorney general for the United States? Not one senator on the Judiciary Committee asked this question.
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Since the hearing, we’ve begun to see commentary from senators announcing their intent to oppose Sessions’ nomination – beginning with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, a member of the Judiciary Committee. Both senators expressed deep concerns over Senator Sessions’ ability to protect the rights and freedoms of all Americans.
In summary, Senator Sessions’ presentation at this week’s confirmation hearing only deepened the concerns that many expressed in submissions to the Senate Judiciary Committee. As ranking member, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, pointed out, this includes over 400 civil rights organizations and countless women’s, LGBT and immigrant groups. Senators on the Judiciary Committee and in the full Senate will face what their colleague Cory Booker described as his choice in testifying against Sessions: whether to elevate “conscience and country,” over the tradition of protocol and comity that urges senators to support their own members for cabinet positions.
The Senate vote will speak volumes about what the most vulnerable groups in our society can expect from our elected leaders in the coming years.