Sessions nod upsets civil rights groups
GOP: AG pick will restore Justice Dept.
WASHINGTON — Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department’s civil rights division was rebuilt into what former Attorney General Eric Holder called the agency’s “crown jewel.”
But many civil rights advocates and legal scholars voiced concern Friday that the unit faces an uncertain future under the leadership of Donald Trump and his pick to be the next attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
They predict the Justice Department in the coming years will be less likely to sue states over voting restrictions that target the poor or minorities, to hold police departments accountable for abuses or fight for the rights of transgender people.
Also vulnerable are Justice Department guidelines set under President Barack Obama that sought more lenient sentences for nonviolent offenders and restricted racial profiling and surveillance of Muslims.
Among the biggest objections to Sessions, civil rights groups say, is that he has consistently voted against expanding rights for gays and lesbians, spoken dismissively of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 over racially insensitive remarks he made.
Now that same staunch conservative may be in charge of federal civil-rights enforcement.
Advocates say a retreat from the Justice Department’s aggressive posture on civil and voting rights would come at a horrible time. The country is grappling with the aftermath of widespread frustration sparked by the killings of unarmed black men by police officers in cities and towns across the nation.
In recent years, minorities have increasingly turned to the Justice Department to address discrimination by police and state and local governments.
Sessions “must be committed to equal justice under law for all,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Sessions’ positions are better known than those of President-elect Donald Trump, who has released few proposals dealing with criminal justice matters.
Sessions voted for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and against expanding hate crimes to include sexual orientation. He opposed an update to the Voting Rights Act after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling struck down key elements of the historic law. He has been critical of bipartisan efforts to reform sentencing in drug cases.
In 1986, when he was tapped by President Ronald Reagan to become a federal judge, Sessions’ nomination was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee after it emerged he made racially charged remarks.
Justice Department lawyers and colleagues at the time said Sessions had once agreed that a white lawyer was a “disgrace” to his race for handling civil rights cases, Conservatives say that Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., would rein in a Justice Department that, under Obama appointees Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, went too far. referred to a black attorney as “boy,” and called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and American Civil Liberties Union “unAmerican.”
Sessions denied having made those statements or said he did not recall them.
Republicans and conservatives cheered Sessions’ appointment, saying they are enthusiastic about what they see as a reversal of Obama administration policies in the civil rights arena that they think went too far, particularly in the investigations of police departments, lawsuits against states over voter ID laws and the refusal to defend a federal law prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriages.
“It’s time to end the politicization of the Justice Department and start defending the rule of law,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a top Republican in the Senate.
Republicans and conservatives also expressed skepticism over civil rights’ groups dire warnings.
Hans Von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said he thought the civil rights division will continue to bring voting rights cases as merited, but that the department had gone too far under Obama in suing states over their voter ID laws despite a Supreme Court ruling upholding such requirements.
Von Spakovsky said the division’s investigations into police departments appeared to be an effort to impose federal standards, rather than correct violations of civil rights.