Sessions Unchanged: The same hostility toward civil rights advocacy that cost Jeff Sessions a judgeship in the 1980s has been a central theme of his entire Senate career

By Kyle Barry
Policy Counsel
NAACP Legal Defense Fund

With Senator Jeff Sessions’s Attorney General nomination set for a confirmation hearing next month, he and President-elect Trump’s transition team have tried to rebrand his image into one of civil rights hero, asserting, without evidence, that Sessions has a “strong civil rights record.” Yet throughout his entire career, Sessions has been openly hostile to civil rights advocacy and the lawyers who defend constitutional rights and protect civil liberties for all Americans. Indeed, when a Republican Senate rejected Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1986, his characterization of civil rights advocacy as “un-American” was a central part of the case against him. The years since have been more of the same; if anything, in speeches and statements throughout his Senate tenure, Sessions’s attacks on civil rights work and the lawyers who do it have only intensified.

Sessions has often directed vitriol at civil rights lawyers — those who spend their legal careers upholding the rule of law in the face of attacks on core constitutional guarantees like freedom of speech and equal protection of the laws — while dismissing them as “activists” with “agendas” who are disqualified from serving as judges or in any other government role. Thus, in now touting himself as a civil rights champion, Sessions is asking the public to believe he has become precisely what he has spent his Senate career trying to discredit.

During Sessions’s 1986 confirmation hearing, two witnesses testified that Sessions had referred to the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and other civil rights organizations as “un-American” groups who “did more harm than good” while “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people.” In clarifying (but not denying) these remarks, Sessions essentially said that civil rights advocacy only becomes “un-American” when it strays from his own narrow conception of what “civil rights” should be.

Sessions said he had referred to groups who “involve themselves in promoting un-American positions,” and to instances when “the NAACP and other civil rights organizations . . . leave the basic discriminatory questions and start getting into matters such as foreign policy and . . . other political issues.” Sessions justified this constraint on civil rights advocacy by explaining that, by the 1980s, “the fundamental legal barriers to minorities had been knocked down, and . . . in many areas blacks dominate the political area, and . . . when civil rights organizations or the ACLU participate in asking for things beyond what they are justified in asking, they do more harm than good.”

During that same hearing, Sessions also criticized the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for defending “the Marion Three” — three Black civil rights advocates who Sessions prosecuted after they assisted primarily elderly African-American voters submit absentee ballots — because he “did not think [that] was a racial case.” A jury acquitted all three.

In the years since, the ACLU has remained the primary target of Sessions’s ire, but he has directed similar condemnation at an array of groups whose work includes providing free legal aid and advocating for individual rights and liberties. These include the Western Center for Law and Poverty, Public Counsel (an affiliate of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law that provides free legal services to abused children and homeless families), the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (now LatinoJustice PRLDEF), the Legal Services Corporation (the nonprofit established by Congress to provide free legal aid to low-income Americans), the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, and the Black Lives Matter movement, among others.

His condemnation of these groups has been expressed consistently throughout his tenure as a United States Senator. For example:

· In November 2015, Sessions said “it is a real problem when we have Black Lives Matter making statements that are really radical, that are absolutely false, and then being invited to the White House.”

· In July 2015, during the confirmation hearing of a district court nominee from Maryland, Sessions made the nominee answer for her career as a public defender and civil rights lawyer, and invoked Freddie Gray, the teenager unlawfully arrested and killed by Baltimore police in 2015, as a client inappropriate for a lawyer nominated to the bench:

“Can you assure the police officers in Baltimore and all over Maryland that might be brought before your court that they’ll get a fair day in court, and that your history would not impact your decisionmaking?” he asked. “And I raise that particularly because I see your firm is representing Mr. Freddie Gray in that case that’s gathered so much attention in Maryland, and there’s lots of law enforcement officers throughout the state and they want to know that they don’t have someone who has an agenda to bring to the bench — can you assure them that you won’t bring that to the bench?”

· In December 2010, Sessions took to the Senate floor to rail against judicial nominees who have what he calls “ACLU DNA” or the “ACLU chromosome,” painting the organization with the same sort of anti-American rhetoric he used before. The ACLU “seeks to deny the will of the American people,” he said, “and has taken positions far to the left of mainstream American and the ideals and values the majority of Americans hold dear.” He then named a list of judicial nominees who had some prior connection to the ACLU in any capacity — evincing their disqualifying “DNA” — and concluded that “I am not going to support such nominees and no Senator should support them.”

· In October 2009, Sessions opposed a district court nominee and former ACLU staff attorney by saying “I think we’re seeing a common DNA run through the Obama nominees, and that’s the ACLU chromosome.”

· During Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing in July 2009, Sessions suggested that “her time as a leader in the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund” influenced her decisions as a judge on the Second Circuit, and issued a release calling the PRLDEF “an activist legal organization that has taken highly controversial positions.”

· In February 1998, Sessions criticized a district court nominee from Hawaii because she “has been an active member of the ACLU and filed at least one or two lawsuits that were troubling to me, one of which sought to prevent a proposition to go on the ballot in her home state similar to the proposition that was passed in Colorado that said you could not give preferences to person because of their sexual orientation.”

· In September 1997, Sessions said that “areas of concern” about a district court nominee included that “[s]he had served on the board of directors of two organizations, Public Counsel and the Western Center for Law and Poverty[.]”

· In June 1997, Sessions said he was “trouble[d]” by a district court nominee who had “defen[ded] . . . the Legal Services Corporation and the efforts to restrict them from being involved in politically active cases[.]”

If Jeff Sessions really is the civil rights advocate he now claims to be, it is odd, to say the least, that he has continued to express so much skepticism, ridicule, and outright hostility toward the organizations and lawyers who everyday do the actual work of protecting and advancing civil rights across the country.

As Attorney General, Sessions would have to work with these very groups to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws, including some, like the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Violence Against Women Act, that he voted against as a Senator. And yet his cynical attempt to distort his record with a misleading public relations campaign is an insult to the civil rights community and the entire American public, and affirms that Jeff Sessions, unchanged, is wholly unfit to serve as the nation’s chief law enforcer.