Policy

AG Pick Sessions Makes His Case on Civil Rights

Issue will likely dominate Senate confirmation hearing

Demonstrators from People for the American way protest Sen. Jeff Sessions’ attorney general nomination on Nov. 18 in Washington. Liberal groups have expressed concerns about Sessions’ record on civil rights. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 7:20 p.m. | Sen. Jeff Sessions sought to defend himself from the most contentious objections to his nomination as attorney general, using Senate confirmation paperwork to describe his role in minority voting rights and civil rights cases.

He pointed out that he sponsored the first black member of the Mobile Lions Club in the 1980s in Alabama. He touted the Justice Department’s first voter suppression lawsuit, which was in his state, and said he was “honored to have been a part of it.”

Yet the Alabama Republican also highlighted at length one of his most controversial civil rights cases — his office’s prosecution of three black voting rights advocates who were acquitted of voting fraud charges in 1985. Senators such as Democrats Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts at that time cited the case as troubling amid the racial overtones to Sessions’ failed appointment as a federal judge in 1986, before he was elected to the Senate.

The answers in Sessions’ questionnaire — released by the Senate Judiciary Committee late Friday — foreshadow what will be a main tug-of-war over his past during confirmation hearings set for Jan. 10-11.

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team reportedly has urged Republican senators to argue Sessions is strong on civil rights, according to talking points obtained and published by Politico. On the other side, civil rights groups will use the same history to raise concerns over race that they call alarming for someone who would be in charge of enforcing civil rights laws.

The list of talking points about Trump’s nominees included this: “Sen. Sessions’ strong civil rights record includes a host of desegregation lawsuits he filed in Alabama while he was U.S. Attorney, voting in favor of the 30-year extension of the Civil Rights Act, voting to confirm Attorney General Eric Holder, spearheading the effort to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks, and much more.”

[Sessions AG Confirmation Hearing Set for January]

Sessions was first elected to the Senate in 1996. Democrats have asked for time to examine his extensive record on issues such as immigration, violence against women, racial justice, voting rights and others that come before the Justice Department. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the incoming Democratic leader, told CQ Roll Call last month that he had a lot of questions about Sessions’ past statements and civil rights was on the top of that list. 

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called Sessions’ confirmation “precisely the challenge the Senate will confront in successive confirmation hearings for the new administration’s controversial cabinet picks.”

“This public relations strategy has become the new normal: take the most glaring weakness of your candidate and present it through the looking glass,” Ifill wrote in a Dec. 8 op-ed in the New Republic. “And so Jeff Sessions, lifelong civil rights foe, becomes a civil rights advocate.”

Past record

Sessions, 69, has been publicly mum since Trump announced Nov. 18 that he picked him for the job running an agency with $29 billion budget. As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Sessions would oversee the nation’s immigration courts, policies on criminal prosecution for everything from drug traffickers and white-collar criminals to civil rights issues such as voting rights. 

The questionnaire was Sessions’ first chance to make his case to colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The document covers standard biographical information, such as work history and public statements, but also includes significant legal matters he has handled. It also covers sources of income and details of his net worth, listed as $5.4 million.

Sessions was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama from 1981 to 1993. Of the 10 most significant litigated matters Sessions listed in his questionnaire, six of them related to racial issues. He generally summed up the case in a few sentences or paragraphs, some lacking enough detail to know what work Sessions did in the cases.

In some cases, the litigation started before Sessions became U.S. attorney. Sessions agreed legally with all the cases and full cooperated with and supported the investigations and litigation as the U.S. attorney, a transition team source told CQ Roll Call. 

In one example, Sessions listed Davis v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, calling it a decade of litigation between students, their parents and the school board over integrating schools. The 10-line summary says that “on behalf of the United States and with the support of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, papers were filed with the court” alleging the school district had not fully integrated.

But it doesn’t say more about Sessions' involvement in that filing or the case. The transition team source said that the case initially was filed in 1963, and Sessions was involved in briefs and discovery motions in the case in the 1980s once he became U.S. attorney.

In another case that ended in 1988, Sessions took 11 lines to describe U.S. v. Dallas County Commission, where the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sued under the Voting Rights Act over minority vote dilution since no black candidates had been elected to county office since 1966. Sessions wrote that: “Along with the ACLU, my office continued to support the extensive litigation and appeals,” and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit created county districts that increased opportunities for black voters to elect officeholders of their choice.

The case was filed in 1978 and Sessions was active on briefs and motions when he was U.S. attorney, the transition source said. 

Sessions took 34 lines to tout his work as U.S. attorney “to solve the murder” of a 19-year-old black man in Mobile, Ala., who was hung by a Ku Klux Klan member in 1981. Sessions said he insisted the local district attorney prosecute the case because “the federal government did not have an enforceable death penalty at the time.” The man was executed, Sessions wrote, and the news media wrote that it was Alabama’s “first execution for a white-on-black crime since 1913.”

Marion Three case

But Sessions went into greatest detail about his role in the 1985 voter fraud case in Perry County, Ala., against Albert Turner, a former field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as well as Spencer Hogue Jr. and Evelyn Turner. The black civil rights workers became known as “The Marion Three,” according to a summary of the case from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Defense attorneys at the trial said prosecutors from Sessions’ office were on a “witch hunt” for the three who worked to increase voter turnout in black communities through collection of absentee ballots, according to coverage of the trial by The Associated Press. The Justice Department said race was not a factor in the investigation, and alleged the three defendants had altered ballots and pressed mail fraud counts.

[Senate Democrats Can’t Stop Sessions, So How Much Will They Fight?]

In the Judiciary questionnaire, Sessions spent 80 lines describing the investigation, how it was conducted and some of the evidence — including the FBI determination that 75 of 729 ballots seized in the case contained alterations and erasures.

Sessions included a detailed summary of the case in response in response to many media reports about the case that he believes inaccurately or incompletely stated the facts, the transition team source said. For example, media reports have omitted that it was black incumbents who asked for the investigation and black voters who allegedly had their absentee ballots changed. 

“Each voter, with suspected changes on their ballot, was shown their ballot and asked if they had made or authorized the changes,” Sessions wrote. “Approximately 25 individuals said they had not authorized changes and that they had given their ballots to the Turners or Hogue for mailing.”

Sessions noted that witnesses at trial refuted that those witnesses were intimidated or were to ill to travel to testify. “Ultimately, the jury acquitted the three defendants,” Sessions concluded.

During Sessions’ confirmation hearings to be a federal judge in 1986, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said the prosecution “of well-known and highly respected civil rights leaders” was “very, very troublesome.” The Judiciary Committee ultimately voted to reject Sessions’ nomination.

And that leads to a strange omission in Sessions’ questionnaire: Question 13(a), which asks for “unsuccessful nominations for appointed office.”

Sessions didn’t mention that failed appointment for judge in 1986.

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