Ses­sions nod up­sets civil rights groups

GOP: AG pick will re­store Jus­tice Dept.

Baltimore Sun - - TRUMP TRANSITION - By Del Quentin Wil­ber Los An­ge­les Times’ Seema Me­hta con­trib­uted.

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.

CAROLYN KASTER/AP

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