Sunday, January 8, 2017
by Risa E. Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
Is Senator Jeff Sessions qualified to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws and ensure that the U.S. protects and respects human rights at home and abroad? This question must drive the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Sessions’ nomination to be U.S. Attorney General. The hearing is set for January 10th.
Civil and human rights organizations have denounced President-elect Trump’s nomination of Senator Sessions, noting that, throughout his career, Sessions has expressed views and taken actions that are anathema to human rights, including the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. He voted against the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, has taken a hard line against immigration reform, questioned the necessity of the Voting Rights Act, supported a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, opposed a bill to grant workplace discrimination protections to LGBT people, and voted against a measure reaffirming the prohibition against torture. He has disturbing ties to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim groups and a close relationship with Breitbart News. The Senate rejected his nomination for a federal judgeship in 1986, based in part on testimony that he made racist statements and called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.”
Compounding his alarming record on civil and human rights, Senator Sessions has failed to provide the Senate Judiciary Committee with complete information upon which to consider his nomination to be the federal government’s chief law enforcement officer. In advance of this week’s confirmation hearing, Sessions provided an incomplete response to the Senate Judiciary Questionnaire, leaving out key documents from his time as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Alabama Attorney General, and in the U.S. Senate. A supplement to his original response continued to omit relevant press releases, op-eds, media interviews, and speeches. Last week, Senator Patrick Leahy, the outgoing ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed concern over Sessions’ failure to fully disclose materials relevant to his nomination.
There have been remarkable acts of protest in the lead-up to the confirmation hearings. The NAACP held a sit-in at Senator Sessions’ Alabama offices, resulting in the arrest of the national NAACP president and others. A Moral Monday March to the Capitol is planned for January 9th. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights organized a Congressional sign-on letter of over 140 national organizations opposing Sessions’ nomination. And over one thousand law professors have urged members of Congress to reject the nomination.
As these and other actions underscore, a full and open hearing to examine Senator Sessions’ fitness to be Attorney General requires comprehensive documentation of his public writing, speeches, and interviews, tough questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and continued vigilance on the part of human rights advocates. His record must be assessed by the light of the civil and human rights that the office of Attorney General is charged with protecting. Close scrutiny of the incoming Trump administration, and accountability for its actions, start now.