J. Gerald Hebert is director of the Voting Rights and Redistricting Program at the Campaign Legal Center. Joseph D. Rich is co-director of the Fair Housing and Community Development Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. William Yeomans is a fellow in law and government at American University’s Washington College of Law; on Election Day, he worked as a voter protection legal volunteer for the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions is trying to mislead his Senate colleagues, and the country, into believing he is a champion for civil rights. We are former Justice Department civil rights lawyers who worked on the civil rights cases that Sessions cites as evidence for this claim, so we know: The record isn’t Sessions’s to burnish. We won’t let the nominee misstate his civil rights history to get the job of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
In the questionnaire he filed recently with the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions (R-Ala.) listed four civil rights cases among the 10 most significant that he litigated “personally” as the U.S. attorney for Alabama during the 1980s. Three involved voting rights, while the fourth was a school desegregation case. Following criticism for exaggerating his role, he then claimed that he provided “assistance and guidance” on these cases.
We worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which brought those lawsuits; we handled three of the four ourselves. We can state categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of them. He did what any U.S. attorney would have had to do: He signed his name on the complaint, and we added his name on any motions or briefs. That’s it.
To understand why that was the sum total of Sessions’s work, it helps to know that the Civil Rights Division in Washington takes the lead in investigating and trying voting rights and school desegregation cases. Division lawyers decide which cases to bring, where to bring them and the contours of the legal theory presented to the court. When a complaint is filed, the custom is for the local federal prosecutor, the U.S. attorney, to sign it and perhaps other substantive court filings. This step is a mere formality. In rare cases, the U.S. attorney also provides input to the Civil Rights Division attorneys about the substance of the case or the legal strategy. But the role is limited to that of an adviser to the division lawyers driving the litigation.
Sessions’s attempt to pass himself off as a civil rights hero is particularly brazen given his history with the nominations process. In 1986, as part of his rejected bid to become a federal district court judge, Sessions filled out a similar questionnaire and had to provide the same information about his most important cases. Yet he listed none of the civil rights cases he now touts, even though all of those cases either were in progress or had reached a decision by that time. Instead, he chose to highlight his criminal prosecutions.
In both the 1986 questionnaire and his confirmation hearings (at which one of us, J. Gerald Hebert, testified), Sessions indicated that he discussed civil rights cases with department attorneys only when they came to Mobile, Ala., to get him to sign complaints. He also said he did not try any civil cases himself while U.S. attorney, focusing instead on criminal prosecutions. Indeed, he said it was Tom Figures — the same African American assistant whom Sessions allegedly called “boy” — who handled all of the office’s civil rights cases. It therefore makes sense that his 1986 questionnaire included so many criminal cases and no civil rights matters. That renders even more suspect his recent efforts to claim his colleagues’ civil rights experience as his own.
Sessions’s dubious questionnaire is not an isolated incident. It is part of a concerted effort to make his abysmal civil rights record look exemplary. For instance, Sessions is circulating talking points touting his support to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act 10 years ago. That took no special courage — the measure passed the Senate 98 to 0. But Sessions celebrated when the Supreme Court cut the heart out of the law in 2013, and has opposed all efforts to fix it since. He is also playing up the fact that his U.S. Attorney’s Office tried cases with the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. Yet he has called those same organizations “un-American,” and in 2010 he bashed several of President Obama’s judicial nominees for having what he called “ACLU DNA” or “the ACLU chromosome.” His recent assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, Sessions has a long record of hostility toward enforcing the rights that Americans cherish.
Sessions has not worked to protect civil rights. He worked against civil rights at every turn. Sessions knows that his real record on race and civil rights is harmful to his chances for confirmation. So he has made up a fake one. But many of us who were there — in Alabama in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond — are still around. We lived that story, too. And we are here to testify that Sessions has done many things throughout his 40-year career. Protecting civil rights has not been one of them.
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