by Kyle Barry, LDF Policy Counsel

Following the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) called on Congress to exercise its oversight authority over the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure the agency was doing everything in its power to prosecute hate and domestic terrorism crimes, and to enforce civil rights laws. After legislators received thousands of petitions from LDF, the Judiciary Committees in both the House and Senate responded by calling Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appear for oversight hearings. Sessions testified before the Senate panel for five hours last month, and will appear before the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow.

As was the case for Sessions’ Senate testimony, Members are expected to thoroughly question Sessions on his failure to disclose Russian contacts both at his confirmation hearing and on security clearance forms — particularly since recent reports and unsealed court documents show that Sessions knew about Russian contacts with the Trump campaign.

Nonetheless, it’s imperative that DOJ’s civil rights enforcement remains a focus of congressional oversight. The Sessions’ DOJ has consistently attacked and undermined key protections for the most vulnerable Americans. To note just a few examples, the Department: reversed its long-held position challenging Texas’ voter ID law — the strictest in the country — and now supports the State in its defense of the intentionally discriminatory law; filed a brief arguing that federal civil rights laws do not protect employees from discrimination based on their sexual orientation; issued guidance that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination does not apply to discrimination based on gender identity; retreated from a number of vital policing reform programs and commitments; and started investigations into affirmative action programs in higher education.

Sessions’ Senate testimony also raised further questions. For example, Sessions testified that President Trump’s so-called “election integrity” commission — which was created to justify false claims of widespread voter fraud and to ultimately disenfranchise minority voters — has asked DOJ “for assistance on several issues.” House Members should demand to know specifically what assistance DOJ has provided to Trump’s unlawful commission.

Overall, this oversight hearing is an opportunity to get specific answers about Sessions’ role in the administration’s continued assault on civil rights. Key questions for Members of the Committee to ask include:

  1. How has DOJ aided the work of the discriminatory Pence-Kobach voter suppression commission?
  2. Why did DOJ reverse positions in key voting rights cases, lending support to discriminatory voting practices and policies in Texas and Ohio?
  3. What has DOJ done to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, and to prevent future acts of violence by white supremacists and other domestic terror groups?
  4. Has DOJ determined whether white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville violated any federal criminal laws?
  5. Will DOJ honor the request of the St Louis Mayor and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri to investigate police misconduct and violence against people protesting discriminatory policing and the acquittal of Jason Stockley?
  6. How will DOJ protect civil rights and prevent police brutality when it has retreated from consent decrees and dismantled programs that encouraged voluntary and collaborative policing reforms?
  7. Has the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division been completely politicized, with career attorneys silenced and shut out of decisions to investigate affirmative action in higher education and oppose civil rights protections for LGBT workers?
  8. After rescinding guidance that protected the civil rights of transgender students, what has DOJ done to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to access education free of discrimination?

At his confirmation hearing in January, Attorney General Sessions promised to vigorously enforce our nation’s civil rights laws and treat all Americans fairly. We didn’t believe him then and we were right. Over the last 11 months, his actions have spoken far louder than his words. Now it’s time for him to answer to Congress.