Confirmation hearings for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, named by Donald Trump to be attorney general of the United States, began on Jan. 10, before Trump is scheduled to be inaugurated. The rush and insistence on only two days of hearings reflect Republican efforts to cram the nomination through before Americans understand what is at stake.
Sessions will, no doubt, present himself as a humble, genial and reasonable public servant. In reality, Sessions is an outlier, an unimaginable nominee as attorney general, an implacable opponent of the very rights and liberties that the attorney general is supposed to defend. As more than 200 civil rights, human rights and women’s groups noted in a unified statement: “Sen. Sessions has a 30-year record of racial insensitivity, bias against immigrants, disregard for the rule of law and hostility to the protection of civil rights that makes him unfit to serve as the attorney general of the United States.”
Three decades ago, a Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Sessions to a federal judgeship. It deemed him unfit for the bench due to his repeated racially biased remarks, his intemperate dismissal of the ACLU and the NAACP as “un-American,” and his open opposition to the Voting Rights Act, which he scorned as “intrusive.” Republicans agreed that no person with such extreme views should adjudicate the laws that he clearly disdained. That was then. Now Donald Trump and Sen. Charles “Chuck” Grassley, R-Iowa, are intent on putting Sessions in charge of enforcing those very laws.
The attorney general of the United States is a powerful position. The person who holds this office has immense discretion in how the law is enforced — which cases the office chooses to prosecute and which it does not. The attorney general heads several agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the immigration courts. Given his views and that power, there is no question that Sessions would put fundamental rights at risk as attorney general.
• Voting rights: Since the gang of five right-wing justices on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, states across the country have passed various impediments to voting, with disproportionate effect on people of color, the poor and the young. Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department has consistently defended the right to vote. Sessions has stated that he believes these voting changes, primarily in the South, were not intended to hurt minorities, despite numerous court decisions knocking down the laws for that very reason. In this vital area, he embraces the Jim Crow doctrine of “states rights,” and he will no doubt weaken federal enforcement of voting rights.
• Women’s rights: Sessions has consistently opposed every measure designed to enforce equal rights for women. He refused to condemn Trump’s remarks about grabbing a woman by the genitals, saying he wasn’t certain that constituted sexual assault. (For the record, it is, without question, assault). He voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, voted to block increased protections for females in the military from sexual assaults and has consistently voted against access to reproductive health services, even opposing funding to combat violence against clinics, which is on the rise. He voted against equal pay for women, against paycheck fairness and against raising the minimum wage, which benefits women the most.
• LGBT rights: Sessions has consistently voted against equal rights for gays and lesbians. He opposed amending the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include violence based on bias against gender, sexual orientation and disability. He voted for the constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
• Immigrant rights: Sessions has been an implacable opponent of any immigration reforms, supports mass deportation of undocumented workers and embraces Trump’s proposal to build a wall across the Mexican border. While many Republicans disavowed Trump’s outrageous proposal to ban all immigration of Muslims, Sessions said he was open to the idea.
• Drug reform: More than 60 percent of Americans now live in states where medical or recreational use of marijuana is legal. Sessions, an advocate of state’s rights when it comes to civil and voting rights, favors a federal crackdown on drugs, arguing, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Under Sessions, the war on drugs will be escalated, and probably tied to the war on immigrants, with drug laws used to search and harass immigrants, looking for the undocumented who could be deported for violating drug laws.
Over the last 50 years, America has made progress toward equal protection under the law. The civil rights laws, the Voting Rights Act, equal protections for women, for gays and lesbians, the first steps toward police and sentencing reform are central to that progress. All Americans have benefited. The country is far stronger as a result. Yet these are the very laws and rights that Sessions rejects. He was one of the first and few Republican senators to endorse Donald Trump. His nomination is no doubt a return favor. But as attorney general, Sessions will drive this country apart, exacerbate racial tensions, trample basic rights and endanger the public belief in the rule of law. Senators in both parties should make it clear that this country has no desire to turn its back on five decade of progress.