It’s been a little more than 30 years since Jeff Sessions was rejected for a federal judgeship over his record of hostility to civil rights organizations and racist comments he allegedly made to a black colleague, a former assistant United States attorney who testified at the time that Sessions called him “boy” on multiple occasions and once warned him to “be careful what you say to white folks.”
In the years since, Sessions, now the junior senator from Alabama and President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for United States Attorney General, has applauded the gutting of the Voting Rights Act as “good news, I think, for the South." He decried the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges–the landmark case establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage–as an “effort to secularize” the country “by force and intimidation.”
In 2015, while many of his Republican colleagues were pursuing bipartisan criminal justice reform, Sessions lamented the “shrinking prison population” and worked against their efforts on mandatory minimums and sentencing. His views on immigration and deportation, and years in the Senate spent undermining basic reforms to the system, were early points of agreement with the president-elect.
Democrats may oppose his nomination on these terms, but they do not have the seats to block it. The main question hovering over Tuesday’s confirmation hearing, then, is how uncomfortable they are willing to make themselves and their Republican colleagues in their effort to scrutinize Sessions' public record and fight what may very well be a losing battle.
But in a devastatingly thorough 32-page report released on the eve of his confirmation hearing, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund laid out the stakes of that fight and the potential direction of a Sessions-led Justice Department in blunt terms:
An unrelenting hostility toward civil rights and racial justice has been the defining feature of Jeff Sessions’ professional life. At each step of his legal and political career, and across a variety of issues—whether voting, criminal justice, diversity in higher education and employment, education equality, immigration, or LGBTQ rights—Sessions has stood opposite the civil rights community and the principles of fairness and equality.
The report details how over decades of Sessions' career, both as a prosecutor and a senator, he was at odds with basic equality on nearly every front.
A section of the NAACP report on voting rights details a failed effort to prosecute three activists who were helping black voters cast their ballots (1985), his support for stricter voter ID requirements that disproportionately impact people of color (2007 and 2013), and his longstanding criticism of the Voting Rights Act, which he voted to reauthorize in 2006, as "intrusive."
Another section on policing and criminal justice documents Sessions opposing bipartisan sentencing reform (2015), publicly embracing the use of prison chain gangs as attorney general of Alabama (1995), and supporting a bill to allow prosecutors to charge children as young as 14 as legal adults (1999).
Vocal support for Sessions' nomination falls largely along partisan lines. “Sen. Sessions’ solid understanding of the Constitution and firm commitment to the rule of law is exactly what the Justice Department needs,” Utah Sen. Mike Lee said in a statement. “He will make a great Attorney General for all Americans."
But criticism of Sessions' record has been strong enough that the senator addressed it in his opening statement to Tuesday's hearings.
"I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters," according to the prepared remarks. "I have witnessed it. I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by the LGBT community. I understand the lifelong scars born by women who are victims of assault and abuse."
The NAACP LDF does not share Sessions' self-assessment.
"At times, Sessions has claimed to be a supporter of civil rights. Indeed, portraying himself as a civil rights champion has been an explicit part of his strategy to be confirmed as attorney general," the report said. "But the truth is that Sessions’ record in Congress, prosecutorial history, and public statements reveal that Sessions is both extremely hostile to basic principles of equality and lacks any conception of modern civil rights norms and protections."
Taken together, the primary criteria for Donald Trump's Cabinet nominations appears to be an open hostility to the very existence and/or the Obama-directed mission of the federal department you're tasked with running. (See: Rick Perry at Energy, Ben Carson at Housing, Betsy DeVos at Education.) Naming Jeff Sessions to head the Justice Department at a moment when it's taken a more proactive stance on issues of racial and criminal justice is another example of the trend. Sessions' own record, exhaustively detailed by the NAACP report, makes that remarkably clear. Whether or not Democrats will have the stomach to confront him with it remains to be seen.