Acquitted Voting Rights Activist: ‘Why Would You Promote Sessions?’

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Back in the spring of 1986, after having successfully appointed scores and scores of conservative judges to serve on courts across the country, President Ronald Reagan went too far. He picked a federal prosecutor to a fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court in Alabama whose nomination was so controversial that it got quashed by the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee.

That prosecutor was Jeff Sessions, the senator who, in all likelihood will serve as that committee’s most powerful Republican for the next year and a half.

But back to 1986. During the debate over his nomination, committee Democrats questioned Sessions’ prosecutorial discretion, focusing in particular on a case he pursued against three Marion, AL civil rights workers–Albert Turner, Turner’s wife Evelyn, and Spencer Hogue, Jr.–whom he accused of voter fraud. Sessions was unconcerned with claims of fraud outside the so-called Black Belt, but he alleged that the trio had falsified absentee ballots in Perry County during the 1984 election. After conducting an exhaustive investigation, though, he was able to account for only a small handful of questionable examples, and even those he couldn’t pin on his defendants, who were acquitted after only a few hours’ deliberation.

Albert Turner–who was an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr.–passed away in 2000, and his wife could not be immediately located, but Hogue still lives in Marion, and by phone today he expressed his displeasure with the news that Sessions is, in effect, getting a promotion.“I don’t know why he’d be promoted,” Hogue said. “It will give him more power to do things he shouldn’t.”

“We were trying to get the right to vote,” Hogue said. “He tried to persecute us.”

Sessions has tried to reduce the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, which mandates a five-year minimum term in prison for trafficking either 500 grams of powder or 5 grams of crack. Sessions says that the 100-fold disparity should be made a 20-fold disparity by lowering the cocaine threshold to 400 grams and increasing the crack threshold to 20 grams.

This wasn’t always his position. “I, as a prosecutor, agreed with many in the law enforcement community in 1986 to support a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for 5 grams of crack and for 500 grams of powder,” Sessions said in May, 2002. “The purpose of supporting the same 5-year sentence for such different amounts of essentially the same drug was based in large part on an effort to stop the rapid spread of crack into African-American neighborhoods. It was also based on the fear that pregnant women on crack would make their babies addicts – this was the “crack baby” phenomenon.”

(The Clinton administration tried to reduce the 100-fold disparity into a 10-fold disparity, but Sessions found that formulation too fair to crack-users).

Throughout his Senate career, Sessions has argued–and still argues–that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires southern jurisdictions to obtain approval from the Justice Department before making changes to their electoral processes, should be scrapped. This is a standard position among Southern Republicans, who say that the South has come a long way since the 1960s and that there will be no risk of disenfranchisement to minority communities if states and districts could alter their voting procedures on their own.

They may get their wish–the Supreme Court is currently considering a challenge to Section 5 and many observers expect that the right-leaning court will, in the coming days, rule its provisions unconstitutional.

An email to Sessions’ press secretary asking whether the senator still believes the case against Hogue was properly litigated–and whether the elimination of Section 5 of the VRA might make organizers more susceptible to unfair prosecution–was not immediately returned.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM’s senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he’s led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com

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