What Does Jeff Sessions Mean for Civil Liberties?

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Note: Prior to publication a letter was sent by Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee concerning Sen. Jeff Session’s nomination. While they made no promise of how they would vote on Sessions, they have requested extensive hearings that cover a number of issues, including Sessions’ positions on civil liberties, LGBT rights, workers’ rights and racial justice.

On November 16, 2016 Donald Trump announced the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for Attorney General of the United States. The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider the nomination. Sessions is a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, and he has appeared before it as a nominee before.

In 1986, then President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions for a federal judgeship. At the time the Judiciary Committee was controlled by Reagan’s Party, but Sessions was rejected when two Republicans joined with the Democratic Committee members in voting against his nomination. Session was considered ill-suited for the judiciary due to a number of racist comments he had made, as well as claims that he had called the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union “un-American” and “communist inspired,” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.” When asked by the Committee about the allegation, instead of denying them Sessions said,  “I’m often loose with my tongue. I may have said something about the NAACP being un-American or Communist, but I meant no harm by it.” Sessions also said that groups could be considered un-American when they took positions at odds with the official foreign policy of the United States government.

A Troubling Past

As Attorney General, Sessions will be in charge of enforcing the Voting Rights Act and ensuring people are not denied the right to vote, but he has proven himself to be antagonistic toward the rights of minority voters. At the time Sessions was nominated to be a District Court judge, he was serving as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of Alabama. During his tenure, he was involved in the controversial prosecution of three civil rights activists for voter fraud and mail fraud. The prosecutions were widely derided as being politically motivated and as part of an attempt to chill African-American electoral participation in wake of the Voting Rights Act. All three activists were acquitted of all charges.

See FBI Voter Suppression Then, FBI Voter Suppression Now

It was during his time as Assistant United States Attorney that Sessions made the above forementioned comments about the ACLU and the NAACP. These were not the only concerning comments made by Sessions while he was an Assistant United States Attorney. Sessions was viewed by colleagues as being hostile to civil rights. In addition to condemning the ACLU and NAACP for their un-American ways, Sessions also told a colleague that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions admitted to having made this statement, but claimed it was a joke  

Senator Sessions, No Friend of Civil Liberties

In an ironic twist of fate, Session would later be elected to the Senate and serve on the Committee that rejected him. Sessions’ time in the Senate also raised troubling questions about his commitment to civil liberties. Sessions continued his obsession with the ACLU, frequently voting against or attacking nominations to the federal judiciary for having the “ACLU gene,” “ACLU DNA,” or “ACLU chromosome.” Sessions also carried on his belief that it is un-American to dissent from official US foreign policy, when, in 2005, he told a counterprotest to an anti-Iraq War protest, “The group who spoke here the other day did not represent the American ideals of freedom, liberty and spreading that around the world. I frankly don’t know what they represent, other than to blame America first.”

Sessions is a supporter of torture. In 2005, Session was one of only nine members of the US Senate to vote against the Detainee Treatment Act put forth by Sen. John McCain, a torture survivor, to ban the US military from engaging in torture.

Session also holds the antiquated view of supporting the failed War on Drugs and is a supporter of civil forfeiture, which even many members of his party recognize as an abuse of civil liberties. During Sen. Ted Cruz’s hearing on the “War on Police,” Sessions claimed that because of “marches and protests,” as well as, federal government oversight of police misconduct, police officers were now “sitting under the shade tree” causing a spike in crime. This attitude towards Justice Department oversight of law enforcement is exceedingly disturbing given Sessions nomination to head the Justice Department.

LGBTQ Rights

As Alabama Attorney General, Sessions was found to have violated the First Amendment rights of LGBTQ student groups.  In 1991, the Auburn University Administration overturned a Student Government denying funding to the Auburn Gay Straight Alliance. In response, the Alabama State Legislature passed both a resolution condemning “homosexual lifestyles” generally and later a statute prohibiting funding to organizations that encouraged others to commit unlawful acts, explain how unlawful acts were performed, or encouraged the state to change its “sodomy and sexual misconduct laws.” After the law was passed, the University of South Alabama sought guidance from Sessions as to whether law prohibited them from treating the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance as they would any other student group.    Sessions issued an opinion stating that GSA could not receive school funds, as “an organization that professes to be comprised of homosexuals and/or lesbians may not receive state funding or use state-supported facilities to foster or promote those illegal, sexually deviate activities defined in the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws.”Sessions had previously issued a similar opinion even before the statute in question had been passed. A court found both entire statute, as well as, Session application of it to bar funding to the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance to be unconstitutional.

This move was not only part of a deeper pattern of hostility on Sessions part to the First Amendment, but part of a deep antipathy towards LGBTQ people. Sessions has supported an amendment to the US Constitution to ban same-sex marriage and opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Immigrant Rights

Sessions is especially hostile to immigrant rights. He has continuously supported denying federal funding to sanctuary cities, something Donald Trump has promised to do. Sessions, like Trump, has been a champion of mass deportations. He also in 2014 claimed that immigrants in the US military could be spies. Sessions has similarly been a champion of the US government imposing a religious test on immigrants, barring those who are Muslim.

Defend Civil Liberties, Reject Sessions

It is not surprising that Trump tapped Sessions as his pick for Attorney General. Sessions was one of the few federally elected Republicans to endorse Trump during the primaries. He also shares much of Trump’s agenda, including support for mass deportations and barring Muslims immigrants from the United States.

Sessions has a long and documented history of opposing the rights of vulnerable populations, disregarding the First Amendment, and championing torture. As Attorney General, Sessions would be head of the department in charge of overseeing the protections of civil rights and the most powerful law enforcement in the nation. Given his historic hostility to civil liberties this is unacceptable. Sessions was rightfully rejected as a judicial nomination and should be similarly rejected for Attorney General.