The announcement that Donald Trump will nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to be his attorney general has produced a panic among civil rights groups.
The NAACP called his selection “deeply troubling” and said Sessions “supports an old, ugly history where Civil Rights were not regarded as core American values.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said Sessions had “no place leading our nation’s enforcement of civil rights and voting rights laws.” The NAACP-Legal Defense Fund said it was “unimaginable that he could be entrusted to serve as the chief law enforcement officer for this nation’s civil rights laws.”
Of particular concern is Sessions’ history on voting rights, which the Leadership Conference described as a “record of hostility.” Over the course of 30 years, Sessions has shown a skepticism toward the Voting Rights Act, while being quick to inflame concerns over alleged election fraud. With Sessions at the helm of the Department of Justice, its recent efforts to curb discriminatory voting restrictions look to be very much in jeopardy.
“He has said many things to raise concerns and this is a time that these concerns are going to need to be quelled,” Wendy Weiser, the director of Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, told TPM.
As a U.S. attorney in Alabama in the mid-1980s, Sessions sought to prosecute African American activists in the state — including Albert Turner, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr. who was also among those clubbed by police officers in the march for voting rights in Selma — for allegedly committing voter fraud with absentee ballots. The federal investigators hid behind the bushes outside of a post office to monitor the activists as they sent out about 500 absentee ballots they collected from elderly black voters, according to the Nation. The investigators took down the information from the ballots and tracked down 20 voters. The elderly African Americans were bused 200 miles to be interrogated and to deliver testimony in front of a grand jury, according to a Washington Post report from the time. Of the 1.7 million ballots cast in the election in question, the investigation was only able to turn up 14 allegedly tampered ballots, The New Republic reported.
Sessions brought 29 charges against each of the activists related to fraud and conspiracy, according to the Nation. A jury, in deliberations that lasted only a few hours, acquitted the three activists. Even after, Sessions insisted “there was sufficient evidence for a conviction,” the Washington Post reported at the time. The investigation was also knocked by a panel of judges who objected to how investigators numbered absentee ballots after they were mailed so they could collect the voters’ information, the AP reported in 1986, though Sessions continued to stand by the practice.
Civil rights groups warned that the probe, despite the acquittals, would have a chilling effect on campaigns to help African Americans vote, according to USA Today.
The episode came up a year later, when the Senate was considering Sessions’ 1986 nomination by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship. But it was soon eclipsed by allegations that Sessions expressed racist sentiments among his colleagues. Over the course of the hearings related to the controversy, Sessions admitted to calling the NAACP and the National Council of Churches “un-American,” though he denied he had applied the label to the ACLU, as was claimed.
“I recall saying that civil rights organizations, when they demand more than is legitimate, it hurts their position,” Sessions testified in front of Congress.
Sessions was also accused of calling a white attorney involved in major voting rights litigation a “disgrace to his race.”
“The best I could recall was that I said, well, he is not that popular around town; I have heard him referred to as a disgrace to his race,” Sessions said in congressional testimony.
During the nomination hearings Sessions also said he believed that the Voting Rights Act was an “an intrusive piece of legislation,” but added that it had been “effective.”
J. Gerald Hebert, the former DOJ attorney who came forward with some of the claims of Sessions’ racist comments, said in a statement Friday that his nomination as attorney general was “a threat to voting rights for all minorities.”
The scandal did not stop Sessions from being elected in 1994 as Alabama’s attorney general and then in 1996 to the U.S. Senate, where he occupied its far-right fringe.
In the Senate, Sessions opposed a failed bill to expand voting rights for convicted felons.
“I don’t think American policy is going to be better informed if we have a bunch of felons in the process,” Sessions said in 2002, when the legislation was being considered.
In 2006, he voted in support for the extension of the Voting Rights Act, but not without making a stink about its Section 5, which required Alabama and other localities with a history of racial voting discrimination to get federal approval for election policy changes. After the extension, he signed on to a Republican report on the newly extended VRA that appeared to be skeptical of the constitutionality of some of its provisions.
Not surprisingly, he cheered the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, stemming from a lawsuit filed by a county in his home state, that gutted the pre-clearance provision. He called it “good news, I think, for the South.”
“Shelby County never had a history of denying the vote, certainly not now,” he said, referring to the county that brought the lawsuit against the VRA. “There is racial discrimination in the country, but I don’t think in Shelby County, Alabama, anyone is being denied the right to vote because of the color of their skin. It would be much more likely to have those things occur in Philadelphia, Chicago, or Boston.”
He also said in 2013 of his vote in favor of the VRA extension in 2006 that, “In retrospect, that was probably too long an extension because there’s just huge areas of the South where there’s no problem.”
He is a vocal proponent of voter ID laws. It’s worth noting that the Justice Department, which Sessions could soon head, has been involved in a number of lawsuits challenging voter ID laws and other restrictions for being discriminatory, including the lawsuit against Texas’ ID law, which has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
“We need to have strong leadership in the Department of Justice, because [voting rights] are not going to be automatically defended,” Weiser, of the Brennan Center, said.
Additionally, Sessions has long claimed that voter fraud was an urgent problem, despite such cases being incredibly rare. The claim of fraud has been used by Sessions and others to advocate for restrictive laws that critics say are veiled efforts to make it harder for minorities to votes. Sessions was among the Trump supporters backing the then-GOP nominee’s claims that the 2016 election was rigged against him.
“That’s suggestive that he is going to pursue an agenda that restricts voting rights in the name of voting fraud,” Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told TPM.
Corrected: This story has been corrected to reflect that Sessions signed on to a report, not a brief, regarding the Voting Rights Act.