Only in Donald Trump’s America can a guy like Jeff Sessions be considered for the post of Attorney General of the United States today. Here is a man who was nominated for a federal judge post in 1986 by Ronald Reagan and his nomination had to be withdrawn because is conduct was so outside the normal range of behavior for a public servant.
I suggest everyone go back and read the transcripts of those hearings back in the 1986 (they are part of the Congressional record). You would be embarrassed that is, unless you too condone racial bigotry, or you are a racist. But that is what we live today.
The hearings were held March 13,19, 20 and May 6 and Sessions never got a vote. He should not have been nominated and many knew this at the time. The GOP was in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee (Senator Howard Denton) and even most of the GOP did not have the guts or the gall to let Sessions be confirmed. Back then, even though the country had racial issues intertwined in governance (Reagan’s Department of Justice was pretty anti-civil rights for example), racial insensitivity or outright bigoted statements were taken seriously.
From the very beginning, it was clear that Sessions was going to have problems. Senator Edward Kennedy described Sessions at the outset as a “disgrace to the Justice Department” who should withdraw his nomination for the judgeship. Kennedy, like many witnesses, referenced Sessions’ colorful history of racial statements, one in which Sessions, in conversation, effectively agreed with a judge that a white lawyer, James Blackshire, who was litigating voting rights cases was a “disgrace to his race” for doing it.
Kennedy also referenced the statement of J. Gerard Hebert, a voting rights attorney in Alabama at the time, who signed a sworn affidavit for the Senate Judiciary Committee basically confirming that Sessions had on more than one occasion referred to the NAACP and the ACLU as “un-American” and “communist inspired” organizations. Hebert, who recently wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post again repeating his statements regarding Sessions’ character and conduct, notes in that commentary that the nomination of Sessions should make Americans “shudder” especially considering the state of voting rights legally in the U.S.
This is not only because of Sessions’ character and statements on race but specifically because of his infusion of that attitude into his office as Assistant U.S. Attorney in Alabama on a voting rights prosecution case now known as The Perry County case. Sessions, in his post as Assistant U.S. Attorney, prosecuted three civil rights workers for voting fraud in Perry County, Alabama in 1984 during the Reagan years. It is an embarassing episode and cannot be ignored.
The case became his undoing mainly because the prosecution of the workers was baseless. The workers were acquitted quickly. Sessions, who will now be in charge of enforcing the Voting Rights Act if confirmed, became infamous not because he aggressively sought to protect the rights of black voters, long denied that right in the state of Alabama, but because he prosecuted civil rights workers for voting fraud, while they were trying to help poor, illiterate voters to vote by absentee ballot. This all occurred in Alabama, a state associated more than most with denying blacks the right to vote, and willing to use the brute force of the state to stop them.
Two individuals who also testified back then and had direct knowledge of the Perry County case are worth noting as their testimony is very important in understanding why Sessions was rejected and why the Perry County case is so damning to Sessions’ nomination today. They are highly respected: Lani Guinier and Deval Patrick.
Many testified before the committee back then, some for Sessions, many against his confirmation, but because Patrick and Guinier represented one of the workers who was prosecuted, their testimony is specific and intimate and once again, should eliminate Sessions from consideration even though it has been 30 years considering the power he will be given. But that was then; this is now.
Guinier’s role in the Perry case was as defense counsel for Spencer Hogue, one of the workers. Guinier served at the time as counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and litigated extensively in the area of voting rights. Her knowledge of the case is detailed and her testimony reflects her knowledge of the investigation and prosecution.
As Guinier noted in her testimony, all three of the civil rights workers cooperated with Sessions’ grand jury investigation. The workers were members of the Perry County Civic League, an organization formed in 1962 to help blacks obtain the right to vote in the county. The county, according is rural and many of the voters, black voters as well, are “poor” and “illiterate” or “barely literate.” The civil rights workers assist them in filling out their absentee ballots and only make marks on the ballots and changes in their presence and with their permission. It was a common practice and is legal, as Guinier testified, under the Voting Rights Act.
Guinier’s testimony against Sessions is quite revealing as she notes she states that serious questions arise regarding his “judicial temperament, fitness and competence” because of the manner in which he investigated the case and that he prosecuted it. Guinier criticizes Sessions because the acts taken by the workers was legal and many whites also performed the same function in that county but Sessions brought no cases against whites. In addition, Guinier says the problem isn’t that he lost the case; the problem is there was never any case at all against the civil rights workers.
“These prosecutions represent an apocryphal attempt affirmatively to use the resources of the federal government to stop blacks from voting,” Guinier testified. Sessions should be “excoriated” for his actions, Guinier added, not rewarded with “lifetime tenure” on the federal bench. Most of all, Guinier stressed that the actions of the workers was legal and was in widespread use in that poor part of the Alabama.
Deval Patrick, the former Governor of Massachusetts, also testified and he too worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at the time. He also represented Spencer Hogue in the case along with Lani Guinier. Patrick noted many important details to the case that were not mentioned in the hearing.
First, according to Patrick, Sessions attempted to move the prosecution of the civil rights workers to Mobile, Alabama from Selma, which was far closer to the alleged incident. Patrick noted that the number of blacks on any potential jury pool in Mobile would be far less than in Selma. The implication is clear: Sessions wanted to get a white jury for these black civil rights workers’ cases.
In addition, Patrick noted that the government’s case was so weak they attempted to “impeach” their own witnesses through negative inferences during the trial. In effect, Sessions had no case so they were seeking to win the case by attacking the testimony of their own witnesses. Moreover, Patrick testified that Sessions’ case against his client was so weak and frivolous, twenty of the twenty-six accounts were dismissed after the government put on its case.
When Patrick’s client, Mr. Hogue was acquitted of all counts quickly, Sessions sought to bring a new indictment against Mr. Hogue. Patrick opposed that as well and described the charges as totally frivolous. In the end, Patrick also questioned Sessions’ judicial temperament and judgment to sit on the federal bench for life.
The GOP sought to defend Sessions vigorously back then and Sessions tried to spin his own record when he testified. Others spoke up for Mr. Sessions as well and some of his statements were placed into different context but back in 1986, it was quite difficult to control the damage. In addition to Hebert, Kennedy, Guinier, and Patrick, many others confirmed the descriptions of Sessions.
The Senate was not extreme back then in 1986 and the Democrats had some well respected titans in their camp such as Kennedy but also Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, Paul Simon of Illinois, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Mitch McConnell, who is poised to give Sessions his second life in post-Obama America, where bigoted statements and conduct are dismissed and ignored, was a member of the Judiciary Committee as well.
On the final day when it was apparent that his nomination was collapsing, Sessions did make a statement of note. However, considering his choice to be the first Senator to support Donald Trump and the specific nature of these charges, the statement reads hollow and is a paradox.
Sessions testified that he did “not know how to answer these charges and what to say.” He and his wife, “are committed to public education” and he wanted “to see harmony in the South among the races.” He added that he thought “the most important issue probably facing any Southern politician today is to move to harmony amongst the races.”
One wonders then how he could have supported Donald Trump considering Trump’s repeated statements of division, bigotry, and hatred on the campaign trail?