Civil Rights

Black Caucus Members to Judiciary Committee: Sessions Is Unfit

African-American lawmakers protested the selection of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general—and they took their concerns to the men and women who stand to approve his nomination.

© Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

When Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein opened Jeff Sessions’s congressional grilling, she admitted the process would be tough for her.

“The senator before us this morning is someone who many of us on this committee have worked with for 20 years,” she said. “That makes this very difficult for me.”

But for the Congressional Black Caucus, ripping would-be Attorney General Sessions was easy.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, hastily added a final panel to the end of the confirmation proceedings, including African-American congressmen who vehemently criticized Sessions. The panel included Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Cedric Richmond, and Rep. John Lewis—a civil rights icon. The three said Sessions would undo much of the progress of the civil rights movement. And Richmond compared Grassley to segregationists.

Three African-American men who worked with Sessions also testified on the panel, working to counter their criticism. The ensuing clash foreshadows what’s likely to be a top area of scrutiny for Sessions: his approach to voting rights as attorney general.

Because of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Justice Department’s ability to enforce the Voting Rights Act—seminal civil rights legislation—has been significantly weaker. Conservatives, including Sessions, have praised that ruling, arguing it freed local voting jurisdictions from onerous federal oversight. Progressives and civil rights advocates, meanwhile, argue it gave those jurisdictions the power to make voting much harder for African-Americans and other minority groups.

As Attorney General, Sessions would oversee the federal agency responsible for both protecting Americans’ access to the voting booth and keeping voter fraud from impacting election outcomes. There’s no evidence that voter fraud had a meaningful impact on the 2016 elections. But that didn’t keep Donald Trump from tweeting that millions of people voted illegally in the presidential contest, an assertion his staff doubled-down on repeatedly even after his won. During the final day of the Sessions confirmation proceedings, Democrats argued Trump’s administration is likely to use this as an excuse to make voting even harder for people who typically oppose Republicans, especially African-Americans.

Sessions passed on criticizing Trump’s voter fraud tweet during his hearing on Tuesday.

“I do believe we regularly have fraudulent activities occur during election cycles,” he said when Democratic Sen. Al Franken asked if Trump had explained the baffling tweet to him.

The Alabaman’s reply fueled his critics’ concerns.

“He will be expected to defend voting rights, but his record indicates that he won’t,” said Booker.

Lewis also ripped into Sessions over voting issues.

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“After the Shelby v. Holder decision, minorities were in mourning as Senator Sessions was celebrating,” he said. “He declared the decision was ‘good news for the South.’ Alabama and other States immediately adopted voter ID legislation—making it harder for minorities to execute their right to vote.”

“As a fellow Southerner, I have no doubt that Senator Sessions is polite to all he meets,” Lewis added. “My concern is not about how nice he is. My concern is about where he will take the Department of Justice and whether he will respect the dignity and worth of every, single person in our country—regardless of race, color, or background.”

And Richmond went further than either Booker or Lewis, comparing the committee Republicans—who initially didn’t invite them to testify and then had their panel as the final part of the confirmation proceedings—to segregationists.

“I want to express my concerns about being made to testify at the very end of the witness panels,” he said. “To have a senator, a House member, and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of all of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus.”

Lindsey Graham, a white South Carolina Republican on the committee, told The Daily Beast after the hearing that he didn’t appreciate Richmond’s comment.

“I find that highly offensive,” he said. “I think Sen. Grassley has been great. There’s no requirement for him to allow three Democratic politicians to come and beat up a Republican nominee, but he chose to do it. I respect his decision, and I had been chairman, I don’t know if I would have let them do it at all.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on Sessions’ nomination sometime this month, and then the full Senate will vote on him. Republicans control the Senate, and none of them oppose Sessions.

That means Sessions will almost certainly head to the Justice Department, where he’ll have a chance to prove Democrats wrong—or right.