The Nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General
Testimony of Wade Henderson, President & CEO
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
January 10, 2017
Categories: Civil Rights Enforcement Agencies
Click here for a PDF of this testimony (with citations).
Chairman Leahy, Ranking Member Sessions, and members of the Committee: I am Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. I am also honored to serve as the Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Professor of Public Interest Law at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law. Thank you for the opportunity to present the views of The Leadership Conference on the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to be the next United States Attorney General.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is the nation’s oldest and most diverse coalition of civil and human rights organizations. Founded in 1950 by Arnold Aronson, A. Philip Randolph, and Roy Wilkins, The Leadership Conference seeks to further the goal of equality under law through legislative advocacy and public education. The Leadership Conference consists of more than 200 national organizations representing persons of color, women, children, organized labor, persons with disabilities, the elderly, gays and lesbians, and major religious groups. I am privileged to bring the voices of this community to today’s hearing.
The Leadership Conference strongly opposes the confirmation of Senator Sessions as Attorney General. His decades-long record of racial insensitivity, bias against immigrants, disregard for the rule of law, and hostility to the protection of civil rights makes him unfit for this position. In our democracy, the Attorney General is the people’s lawyer, not the President’s lawyer, and has a sacred duty to enforce our nation’s laws without prejudice and with an eye toward justice. He must be seen by the public – every member of the public, from every community – as a fair arbiter of our legal system. Unfortunately, Senator Sessions’ record does not demonstrate that he would meet such a standard.
As you know, when then-U.S. Attorney Sessions was nominated in 1986 by former President Ronald Reagan to be a federal district judge, the Senate upheld its constitutional duty by undertaking a thorough review of his record at that time. This Committee was presented with compelling evidence that then-U.S. Attorney Sessions had a deeply troubling record as an opponent of civil rights enforcement, as someone who engaged in voter suppression tactics targeting African Americans (most notably his failed prosecution of three African-American voting rights activists ), and a history of making racially insensitive comments. In light of this record, the Committee voted against recommending his confirmation.
Over the subsequent three decades, the record of Senator Sessions on matters of civil and human rights has been no less troubling. He remains just as unfit to serve in a position that would require him to represent all Americans in a fair and impartial manner. First, we are concerned that he will simply fail to properly enforce many of our nation’s important civil rights laws and precedents, given his opposition and in some cases outright hostility to them. For example:
- He praised the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- He strongly opposed the Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and even argued it would be unconstitutional, long after the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a similar state law in Wisconsin v. Mitchell.
- He opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and other legislation to advance women’s rights, including efforts to address the pay gap.
- He opposed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.
- He characterized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s requirements to include children with disabilities in mainstream education as “irritating” and “accelerating the decline in civility.”
- He criticized the landmark marriage equality rulings of U.S. v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, and supported legislation that aims to do an end run around them.
- He condemned investigations of police agencies accused of misconduct or a “pattern or practice” of violating civil rights, and called consent decrees “an end run around the democratic process.”
- After then-candidate Donald Trump was revealed to have made comments in 2005 bragging about physically forcing himself on women, Sen. Sessions failed to condemn the remarks and even questioned whether the comments described sexual assault – something his subsequent “clarification” still failed to address.
Second, at the same time that he will under-enforce the law in many areas, we believe he will over-enforce the law in other areas. For example:
- As evidenced by his failed 1985 prosecution of three voting rights activists who were working to increase African-American registration and turnout, and by his strong support for restrictive voter ID laws, Sen. Sessions is certain to overzealously pursue allegations of voter fraud – even though it is extremely rare – and support policies that make it more difficult for citizens to register and vote.
- Given his opposition to bipartisan efforts to reduce sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses, and his opposition to administrative efforts that prioritize more serious cases, he can be expected to support mandatory minimum sentencing and other failed, heavy-handed criminal justice tactics – including with respect to marijuana, even though voters throughout the country continue to support its decriminalization.
- As a fierce opponent of comprehensive immigration reform – which he once referred to as “terrorist assistance” – as well as to more targeted legalization programs such as the DREAM Act, he will likely step up the criminal prosecution of nonviolent immigrants under programs such as “Operation Streamline” and reduce due process protections in administrative immigration proceedings.
- His defense of then-candidate Donald Trump’s call to prohibit Muslims from entering the country – something he called “appropriate to begin to discuss” – raises serious concerns that he will selectively enforce terrorism and criminal laws on the basis of religion.
Third, Senator Sessions has proudly associated himself with some of the most extreme and divisive organizations in our country today, associations that would contravene his responsibility to serve as “the people’s lawyer” for all Americans. For example, he has aligned himself with NumbersUSA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and the Center for Immigration Studies, all three of which were founded by John Tanton, who held white nationalist beliefs and called for the preservation of a “European-American majority.” He has also received awards from the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, two organizations designated as anti-Muslim hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And he has praised the writers of Breitbart.com, which its former head Stephen K. Bannon has described as the “platform for the Alt-Right.”
Finally, since his nomination was announced, Senator Sessions has evidenced a disrespect for the nomination vetting and “advice and consent” process that raises additional questions about his fitness to serve as our nation’s top law enforcement officer. In particular, he has repeatedly failed to fully complete the Committee’s questionnaire, by omitting numerous controversial interviews and speeches and by giving inaccurate information regarding his civil rights litigation experience. While I can understand the difficulty involved in documenting every speech and interview throughout a career as long as his, the misrepresentations and omissions are nonetheless troubling because he has strongly criticized other nominees for allegedly incomplete questionnaires – even suggesting in one case that it could amount to a felony. They also raise questions about whether he will exercise the necessary independence to serve as a proper adviser to and a check on the President and the administration that he intends to serve.
The totality of Senator Sessions’ record, despite some positive aspects, disqualifies him from wielding the tremendous authority and public trust that comes with serving as Attorney General. For the above reasons, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urges you to vote against his confirmation.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to contribute my views to the record of today’s hearing and to your deliberations over this nominee. Please feel free to contact me at (202) 466-3311 if I can be of any further assistance.