Why Lawyers Are Freaking Out About Jeff Sessions as Attorney General

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions begins confirmation hearings Tuesday to serve as Donald Trump’s attorney general. That would make Sessions the top law enforcement officer of the United States, in charge of everything from protecting civil rights to overseeing the FBI. While Sessions’ nomination has been met with opposition from a range of voices, there’s been particular alarm in the legal community.

More than 1,400 law professors from schools in 49 states have signed a statement calling for the Judiciary Committee to reject his nomination, the ACLU will take the unusual step of having a representative testify at the hearings, and a range of other legal groups have weighed in with concerns about the confirmation process and evidence from Sessions’ past suggesting he may not be willing or able to enforce the law protecting our constitutional and civil rights. Here’s a brief survey of their many well-founded concerns.

He prosecuted three civil rights activists on bogus charges.
In 1985, when Sessions was a U.S. attorney in Alabama, he criminally prosecuted Albert Turner, a civil rights activist who had advised Martin Luther King Jr. and been a leader of the 1965 Bloody Sunday march, at which police beat black people marching for the right to vote. Sessions also prosecuted Turner’s wife, Evelyn, and another activist, Spencer Hogue. The trio, who came to be known as the Marion Three, had been involved in efforts to convince black voters it was safe to vote after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and to help them vote by absentee ballot. An FBI agent sent by Sessions to monitor the local post office caught them in the perfectly legal act of mailing absentee ballots, and when the FBI opened the ballots it identified 27 it claimed had been altered. Sessions convened a grand jury, and elderly voters who had been helped by the activists traveled 160 miles by bus to explain that their ballots had been marked as they’d intended. But Session made a federal case of it anyway, adopting the novel theory that it was a crime for a voter to sign a ballot someone else had filled out for him. The judge didn’t buy it and dismissed many of the charges; the jury acquitted the Marion Three of the rest.

Republicans thought he was too racist to be a judge.
When Sessions was nominated for a federal judgeship in 1986, his Senate confirmation was scuttled by concerns that he was too racist to be on the bench. In addition to the Marion Three case, Sessions was accused of making disturbing comments: Thomas Figures, who worked under Sessions as an assistant U.S. attorney, testified that Sessions had called him “boy” and told him to watch what he said to white people. Sessions denies this. There was also testimony that Sessions said the ACLU and NAACP were “un-American” and had “forced civil rights down the throats of the people,” and that he had agreed with the claim that a white lawyer known to defend black clients was a “disgrace to his race.” Sessions says these statements were taken out of context.

While attorneys from the civil rights division of the Justice Department were investigating the lynching of Michael Donald by the Ku Klux Klan, Sessions told a prosecutor, “I used to respect them [the Klan], but if they smoke pot, I sure can’t.” This apparently became a go-to joke for Sessions, because he repeated it to a black attorney, Gerald Hebert, who didn’t think it was very funny. The attorney who recounted the first telling of the joke told the Washington Post he took it to be “hospital humor” (perhaps realizing you don’t use the term “gallows humor” when talking about KKK lynchings). But it would be easier to be charitable about the comments if Sessions’ language today suggested he’d learned much from the experience. 

He’s trying to reinvent himself as a civil rights hero by taking credit for cases he didn’t really work on.
Sessions has attempted to paper over his civil rights history by claiming in his questionnaire for the Senate Judiciary committee that three voting rights cases and a school desegregation one are among the ten most significant cases he “personally” litigated as a U.S. attorney in Alabama. Lawyers who handled three of those four cases have explained that Sessions signed his name on filings prepared by the civil rights division, as is customary, but had no substantive involvement in the cases.

Sessions previously said he filed 20 or 30 desegregation cases when he was U.S. attorney – a claim that raised eyebrows, since Alabama was already under a desegregation order and cases weren’t being filed at the time. The Atlantic could find no evidence of a 1980s desegregation crusade by Sessions. But there is evidence that he misrepresented his role in the prosecution of the KKK members who lynched Michael Donald.

He’s on board with voter suppression.
Sessions is a supporter of voter ID laws, which represent a deliberate attempt to make it unnecessarily difficult for certain constituencies that tend to skew Democratic – like black people – to vote. Sessions has also pushed the dishonest and thoroughly debunked claim that in-person voter fraud is a problem in the U.S.

Other disqualifying facts about Sessions:
—He endorsed Trump’s unconstitutional proposal to ban or register Muslims.
—He worked to execute people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness.
—He doesn’t have a problem with Trump’s call for the execution of innocent people.
—He claimed not to know if grabbing women by the genitals is sexual assault. (It is.)
—He “just doesn’t see” discrimination against women and gay people as a problem anymore.
—He’s accomplished at keeping black judges off the bench of both Alabama’s state and federal courts.
—He withheld information on his confirmation questionnaire. Even after advocacy groups located many of the missing documents, he still didn’t turn them over.

This all paints a pretty horrifying picture of America’s likely next top lawyer – the man tasked with protecting rights fundamental to our democracy, like the right to vote and the right to be free from violence and discrimination. His confirmation is looking like a pretty safe bet, so the best we can hope for may be that senators shine a light on his record and are able to extract promises to protect the rights of people he’s seemed hostile to in the past, and a public that stays vigilant throughout his term.