A lawyer with the U.S. solicitor general’s office will stand before the U.S. Supreme Court next month in support of voting rights for African Americans in Virginia legislative districting. On behalf of the U.S. government, the lawyer will back the argument by minority voters that Virginia is violating the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution by packing African American voters into a dozen legislative districts in the Richmond area instead of dispersing them more widely to increase their overall political influence.
The Justice Department has played an important role for most of the past 60-plus years in supporting long overdue moves toward racial justice. The government’s role was never more important than in 1953 when a new Republican attorney general decided to support the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s plea for the Supreme Court to rule racial segregation in public education unconstitutional.
The Justice Department has proved less supportive of racial justice in later Republican administrations on such issues as desegregation, affirmative action, and voting rights. But now President-elect Donald Trump has chosen as his attorney general an Alabama senator with a record of racially insensitive comments and overt opposition to laws and policies aimed at promoting the cause of justice.
Based on Sessions’ views, the Justice Department under his leadership seems likely to do little to advance civil rights for minorities or women. Sessions’ statements suggest he will prefer voter suppression to voting rights, will ease federal oversight of racial profiling by local police departments, and will shelve efforts to advance LGBT rights. And a Sessions Justice Department seems very unlikely to promote diversity in new appointments to the federal bench, following the Obama administration’s record-setting numbers of women, minorities, and LGBT individuals to the federal courts.
Trump’s nomination of Alabama’s Jeff Sessions promises to provoke a fierce confirmation fight that will test Democrats’ determination to hold Trump accountable if he converts divisive campaign rhetoric into divisive government policy. It will also test whether Republican senators, whether or not they supported Trump’s election, will go along when he picks people from the party’s incendiary wing for top-level positions in the new administration.
Thirty years ago, Sessions suffered what is still for him a grievously embarrassing snub when the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of him for a federal court judgeship in his home state of Alabama. With a Republican majority, the committee voted 10-8 to reject the nomination because of testimony about Sessions’ racially insensitive remarks while U.S. attorney in Alabama. Sessions was quoted as having described a white lawyer litigating a voting rights case as “a disgrace to his race” and as having called the ACLU and the NAACP “un-American” and “communist-inspired” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.”
Sessions tried to discount or deny the accusations. “I am not a racist,” he told the committee back in June 1986. “I am not insensitive to blacks.” He pooh-poohed the slurs on the ACLU and NAACP. “I meant no harm,” he told the committee.
Two moderate Republicans Maryland’s Charles Mac Mathias and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter joined the committee’s eight Democrats in voting to reject the nomination. With Specter changing his vote, the committee then deadlocked 9-9 on a motion to send the nomination to the floor anyway but without a recommendation. Alabama’s Democratic senator Howell Heflin was seen as casting the decisive vote to kill the nomination. He said there were “reasonable doubts” about Sessions’ ability to be “fair and impartial.
Sessions went on to win election as state attorney general and then in 1996 as U.S. senator. He joined the Judiciary Committee and is reported to view his service as member and now chairman as vindication of sorts for the earlier setback at the committee’s hands.
The new nomination is Trump’s payback for Sessions’ having been the first senator, in February, to endorse Trump’s candidacy. Trump made no announcement, but he surely is impressed by Sessions’ fiercely anti-immigrant stances. Civil rights groups immediately exploded in fierce opposition to the nomination and cited a host of other actions or statements by Sessions.
The Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights noted that Sessions had called the federal Voting Rights Act “intrusive” and had celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to nullify the law’s critical preclearance provision. The Human Rights Campaign pointed to Sessions’ zero voting record on LGBT rights, including his votes against repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and his opposition to the bill to prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in the workplace. He also opposed the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision. When asked about the possibility of a gay Supreme Court justice, Sessions replied that the appointment would be “a big concern.”
Two Democratic administrations—Clinton’s and Obama’s—made extensive use of the 1993 law allowing the Justice Department to sue police departments for “policies and practices” that violate minorities’ constitutional rights. The Obama administration moves have been important in answering the demands for racial justice from, among others, the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Sessions is unimpressed. “It is clear,” he remarked “that police officers all over America are concerned” about those moves.
The Justice Department’s shield proclaims, in Latin, that its lawyers “prosecute in the name of Lady Justice.” If Sessions is confirmed, he will come to office with strong doubts about his commitment to that lofty ideal.