David Cole suggest five questions for Jeff Sessions in his confirmation hearing
David Cole writes in the NY Review of Books:
On Wednesday, a group of thirty protesters staged a sit-in inside the Mobile, Alabama office of Republican Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. They delivered an ultimatum: they would stay until Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general of the United States, declined the nomination. Around 7 PM, police arrested six people for refusing to leave. All were from the NAACP—including its president, Cornell W. Brooks.
In a statement, Brooks explained why the NAACP believes Sessions is the wrong person for the job. “Sen. Sessions has callously ignored the reality of voter suppression but zealously prosecuted innocent civil rights leaders on trumped-up charges of voter fraud,” he said. “As an opponent of the vote, he can’t be trusted to be the chief law enforcement officer for voting rights.”
It’s no coincidence that the NAACP’s act of civil disobedience recalls the civil rights years. Sessions himself seems a throwback to that era—and not on the side of the heroes. And for the NAACP, a throwback is not what we need now, when racial tensions around policing are high, hate crimes have dramatically increased, and white supremacists have been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump. Throughout his career, Sessions has shown insensitivity, if not outright hostility, to the interests not only of African-Americans, but of Muslims, gays and lesbians, women, and immigrants as well. The attorney general of the United States is charged with enforcing the law equally for all, and with overseeing the enforcement of the civil rights laws that protect those most vulnerable. Is Jeff Sessions the right man for the job?
Cornell Brooks will be testifying at Sessions’s confirmation hearing, which will be conducted Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. I will also be testifying, on behalf of the ACLU. As a matter of longstanding policy, the ACLU does not take positions supporting or opposing nominees for office, and as a result it rarely testifies in confirmation hearings. But we are sufficiently concerned about Sen. Sessions’s record that we have elected to depart from our usual practice and speak out—not to oppose the nomination, but to insist that the many questions about Sessions’s record must be answered before the Senate votes on his nomination. Here are five:
- Does Sessions believe that all Americans, regardless of race, should have an equal right to vote?
The last time Sessions stood before the Senate Judiciary Committee—in 1986, when President Ronald Reagain nominated him to be a federal district court judge—this question was fatal. The hearing was dominated by allegations that Sessions had called a black colleague “boy,” and told that same black colleague that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was okay until he learned that some of them smoked marijuana. The hearing also focused on Sessions’s vigorous prosecution of three civil rights activists in Alabama one year earlier for helping African-Americans to vote. The lead defendant, Albert Turner, was a civil rights icon who worked for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, marched with John Lewis across the bridge at Selma, and earned the nickname “Mr. Voter Registration” for registering black voters after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Because of the work of Turner and others like him, the number of African-Americans voting in Alabama rose from near zero in 1965 to 70,000 in 1982, helping elect over one hundred black officials.
For some, opening the vote to African-Americans for the first time in Alabama was something to celebrate. For Sessions, it was a cause for concern. He launched an aggressive and intrusive investigation of absentee voting only in districts where black voting had increased. As a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice observes, quoting from a 1985 Chicago Tribune investigation of voter disenfranchisement in Alabama:
Sen. Sessions and his counterpart in the Northern District of Alabama began investigating alleged absentee ballot fraud by black civil-rights activists…. “Hundreds of witnesses, most of them black, [were] interviewed about vote fraud.” Meanwhile, at the same time, the Department of Justice refused to investigate complaints that white politicians solicited longtime nonresidents to submit absentee ballots in local elections. In Perry County, where the Marion Three had collected absentee ballots, the FBI went to the doors of hundreds of black citizens, flashing their badges, asking how they had voted, whether they had received help from black civil-rights activists, whether they could read and write, and why they had voted absentee. The chairman of the National Council of Black State Legislators called the tactics an effort “to disenfranchise blacks who are finally gaining political power in the South.”
Sessions then threw the book at Turner and the other two defendants, who faced more than one hundred years in prison for allegedly violating the Voting Rights Act. According to former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who represented one of the defendants, Sessions maintained that it was a federal crime to advise people on how to vote. It is not, of course. Indeed, advising people on how to vote is the whole point of electoral campaigns. The judge dismissed more than fifty counts before trial, rejecting Sessions’s novel and anti-democratic theory. When Sessions proceeded to trial on the remaining counts, the jury of seven African-Americans and five whites acquitted the defendants on all charges in short order.
This case was so troubling during Sessions’s 1986 confirmation hearing that the Judiciary Committee, in a bipartisan vote, declined to send Sessions’s nomination to the Senate floor, and the nomination was withdrawn. In the thirty years since, the questions raised at the 1986 hearing have never been satisfactorily answered. . .
The other questions, discussed in turn, are:
- How does Sessions defend his record on voting rights laws in the twenty years he has been a Senator for Alabama?
- Why has Sessions so often opposed efforts to protect the rights of women and gays and lesbians?
- Is Sessions prepared to treat all religions equally, and to honor the separation of church and state?
- Can Senator Sessions be an attorney general for all the people?