Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On the Nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions To Be The Attorney General Of The United States

Yesterday I spoke at length about my fear that Senator Sessions would not have the ability to act as an independent Attorney General. The Attorney General is not the president’s lawyer.  He or she is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.  And he or she must faithfully serve all Americans.  Even if Senator Sessions could demonstrate independence from President Trump, my review of his extensive record leaves me unconvinced that he is capable of serving and protecting all Americans.

In 1986, Senator Ted Kennedy called Jeff Sessions a “throwback” because of his conduct on civil rights issues.  I regret to say that since the Judiciary Committee’s bipartisan rejection of Senator Sessions’ nomination to be a district court judge in 1986, Senator Sessions has not allayed our concerns.  In his twenty years in the Senate, he has not shown a commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.  Time and again, when the rights of women, LGBT individuals, and disenfranchised communities have been debated here in the Senate, Senator Sessions has not sought to protect their civil and human rights.  Too often, he has been the one standing in the way.

That is why National Nurses United has written to me to express their opposition to Senator Sessions.  They wrote: “We provide the best care we possibly can, without regard to race, gender, national origin, religion, socio economic circumstances, or other identifying characteristic.  That is what caring professionals do.  Unfortunately, that is not what Senator Sessions has done in his role as a public servant.”  I ask that their full letter be included in the Record at the conclusion of my statement.  That is why my friend John Lewis testified before the Judiciary Committee in opposition to Senator Sessions.  Congressman Lewis stated that, “When faced with a challenge, Senator Sessions has frequently chosen to stand on the wrong side of history.”  I ask that his testimony be included in the Record at the conclusion of my statement.  Senate Republicans should be listening to these concerns, and those of protesters in our streets and airports standing up for our Constitution.  We should not subject those concerns to a gag rule.

Yet Senator Sessions and his supporters have painted a different picture of his record. They have argued that he has a strong record on civil rights.  So I asked Senator Sessions in written questions to identify areas in which racial inequalities persist.  He could have talked about sentencing, or about areas where the Civil Rights Division has found patterns and practices of police departments violating people’s rights, or about the kind of voter suppression efforts that an appeals court found “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision.”  Senator Sessions did not identify a single example of racial inequality in modern America.  That is astonishing.  No one can uphold the rights of all Americans if he is unwilling to pay attention when those rights are being violated.

Some have suggested that Senator Sessions’ record on civil rights has been criticized unfairly and he is held to a different standard because he is a conservative from the South.  I disagree.  When the Judiciary Committee rejected Senator Sessions’ district court nomination in 1986, one of the votes against him came from Senator Heflin, who was a conservative from Alabama.  Moreover, I and most other Democrats just voted to confirm as U.N. Ambassador another conservative Southerner: Nikki Haley.  In 2015, then-Governor Haley made the decision to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds.  She said, “[I]t should never have been there” and that she “couldn’t look my children in the face and justify it staying there.”  When Senator Sessions was asked about this and other efforts to remove the Confederate flag from public buildings, he argued that such efforts “seek to delegitimize the fabulous accomplishments of our country.”  It can come as no surprise that the civil rights community is concerned by his nomination.

But I will speak to my own experiences with Senator Sessions’ views on civil rights laws.  In 2009, Senator Sessions opposed expanding hate crime protections to women and LGBT individuals, groups that have historically been targeted based merely on who they are.  He stated, “I am not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination.  I just don’t see it.”  Thankfully, a bipartisan majority of Senators saw it, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is now law.  These protections are needed now more than ever.  According to recent FBI statistics, LGBT individuals are more likely to be targeted for hate crimes than any other minority group in the country. 

Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, wrote a letter last month opposing Senator Sessions’ nomination.  She was concerned not just by Senator Sessions’ opposition to the law that bears her son’s name, but by how Senator Sessions viewed such hate crimes.  She wrote:

“Senator Sessions strongly opposed the hate crimes bill—characterizing hate crimes as mere ‘thought crimes.’  Unfortunately, Senator Sessions believes that hate crimes are, what he describes as, mere ‘thought crimes.’

“My son was not killed by ‘thoughts’ or because his murderers said hateful things. My son was brutally beaten with the butt of a .357 magnum pistol, tied him to a fence, and left him to die in freezing temperatures because he was gay.  Senator Sessions’ repeated efforts to diminish the life-changing acts of violence covered by the Hate Crimes Prevention Act horrified me then, as a parent who knows the true cost of hate, and it terrifies me today to see that this same person is now being nominated as the country’s highest authority to represent justice and equal protection under the law for all Americans.

I ask that her full letter be included in the Record at the conclusion of my statement.

But that was not all.  Senator Sessions also said that “the hate crimes amendment . . . has been said to cheapen the civil rights movement.”  I asked him about this comment and whether he still felt that way at his hearing, but he did not respond to the question.  I asked him a second time, in a written follow-up, what he meant by that comment.  He replied that “Those were not my words,” but again did not explain what he had meant by that remark.  So I asked him a third time.  The third time, he finally conceded.  He wrote to me that “it is not correct to say it cheapens our commitment to civil rights.”  If it is not correct to say that, then why did Senator Sessions quote it in the first place – and why did it take him three tries to acknowledge the error? 

Senator Sessions also opposed the 2013 Leahy-Crapo Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which overwhelmingly passed the Senate with support from a majority of Republican senators.  During his hearing, and again in written questions, Senator Sessions refused to commit to defend this important law’s constitutionality.  He said only that he “will carefully study” it to discern whether it is “reasonably defensible.”  His refusal to voice support for VAWA is all the more troubling in light of reports that the Heritage Foundation’s budget blueprint, which is reportedly being relied on by the new administration, calls for eliminating all VAWA grants.  I asked Senator Sessions to commit to stand up for victims and preserve these critical programs.  Again he refused.  

Amita Swadhin, who appeared before the Judiciary Committee and bravely shared her story of being raped as a child, explained why this issue is so important: “We need an Attorney General who will continue the progress we have made since the initial passage of VAWA, someone committed to improving and enforcing our laws to ensure the most vulnerable victims of crime can come forward to seek accountability and to access healing.”  This law and these grants are a matter of life and death to many people across the country.  We need an Attorney General who understands that.  The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, which has never before taken a position on an Attorney General nomination, wrote to the Judiciary Committee because they do not believe Senator Sessions understands that.  The letter states:

“Senator Sessions’ Senate record of strenuous objection to protections for historically marginalized populations, coupled with his record of selective prosecutions, demonstrate his unwillingness to protect marginalized victims’ access to justice and disqualify him from holding the position of Attorney General of the United States, a position charged with the responsibility of securing justice for all.”

I ask that this letter be printed in the Record at the conclusion of my statement.

Senator Sessions and his supporters have tried to minimize his opposition to the Leahy-Crapo VAWA bill by pointing out that he did vote in committee for the Republican substitute amendment.  Let me explain what that amendment would have done.  It would have cut authorization levels by 40 percent, hampering efforts to prevent violence and provide services to victims in need.  It would have removed all provisions intended to ensure that victims can receive services regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.  It would have removed important provisions to let tribal justice systems reach the many criminal and civil cases that fell through the cracks.  That amendment would have gutted core elements of the VAWA reauthorization that go to the heart of what VAWA does.  A vote for that amendment hardly demonstrates a commitment to victims.

Another issue that concerns me is criminal justice reform.  For years I have worked with a bipartisan group of senators to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.  These sentences have created perverse disparities within our justice system.  Racial minorities still receive nearly 80 percent of them.  Our bipartisan effort has had the strong support of the Justice Department and many others in law enforcement.  But not Senator Sessions.  In recent years no one in the Senate has fought harder against even modest sentencing reform than he has. 

I am also concerned about Senator Sessions’ commitment to ongoing civil rights litigation.  I asked whether he would maintain the Justice Department’s position in certain important cases.  He would not commit to maintaining the Department’s position, even in voting rights cases where courts have already found that certain voter ID laws are discriminatory.

Senator Sessions would not commit to even maintaining cases that are already at the Supreme Court.  Last month the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.  The Justice Department filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner, arguing that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires states to provide more than de minimis educational benefits and in fact “give eligible children with disabilities an opportunity to make significant educational progress.”  Even though it would be extraordinary for the Justice Department to take a new position after oral argument has already been heard, Senator Sessions would not commit to maintaining the Department’s position in this case. 

I pointed to a lawsuit the Justice Department filed last year in Georgia alleging that Georgia’s treatment of students with disabilities violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In this lawsuit, the Justice Department noted that some of the facilities used by students with disabilities “are located in poor-quality buildings that formerly served as schools for black students during de jure segregation.”  I asked Senator Sessions whether he would continue to pursue this case, and bring others like it where states are in violation of the ADA.  He refused to commit to continuing this case.  The ADA also contains a waiver of state sovereign immunity, which is a critical tool for enforcing that landmark law.  Twice during the Bush administration, the Justice Department argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that the waiver was a valid exercise of Congressional power under Section V of the Fourteenth Amendment.  But Senator Sessions would not commit to defending the constitutionality of that provision.

Senator Sessions’ record on disability rights is also of concern because of the way he spoke about students with disabilities.  He once argued that mainstreaming causes a “decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”  As with my hate crimes amendment and VAWA, the problem is not just that Senator Sessions has opposed protections for the most vulnerable, it is also the language that he uses when opposing them, which denigrate those the laws seek to protect.  That is why a group of 18 disability rights organizations have written to Senate leadership expressing their strong opposition to Senator Sessions’ nomination, and I ask that this letter be included in the Record at the conclusion of my statement.

Senator Sessions has also demonstrated a shockingly brazen attitude when I asked him about the offensive rhetoric used by some of his political associates.  I asked him whether he would condemn certain remarks by David Horowitz, Frank Gaffney, and others.  Senator Sessions received awards from these individuals.  He regularly attended their conferences.  He has given media statements in support of their organizations and the views they put forth.  Yet, when Senator Sessions was directly asked to respond to some of their statements, he effectively shrugged his shoulders.  These included comments:

  • Referring to Muslims as “Islamic Nazis” who “want to kill Jews, that’s their agenda.”
  • Alleging that President Obama “is an anti-American radical and I’m actually sure he’s a Muslim, he certainly isn’t a Christian. . . . He’s a pretend Christian in the same way he’s a pretend American.”
  • Alleging that two Muslims members of Congress have “longstanding Muslim Brotherhood ties.”
  • Arguing that a Muslim member of Congress should not be allowed to serve on the House Intelligence Committee because of his “extensive personal and political associations with…jihadist infrastructure in America.”
  • Claiming that married women by definition cannot be raped by their husbands.
  • Calling for “railroad cars full of illegals going south.”
  • Calling President Obama a traitor.

Senator Sessions responded that he does not hold those views.  That is fair enough. But he did not explain why he chose to associate with such individuals.  When someone accuses President Obama of treason, it is not at all enough to say “I do not hold that view.”  That is why last month Muslim Advocates and 36 other civil rights organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the NAACP, wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing strong concern that “Senator Sessions has closely aligned with anti-Muslim hate groups, accepted their awards and accolades, and publicly praised their leadership. Senator Sessions’ appointment will only embolden these groups and activists and serve to further fan the flames of anti-Muslim bigotry already burning in this country.”  I ask that the full letter from these organizations be included in the Record at the conclusion of my statement.  If Senator Sessions cannot condemn David Horowitz and Frank Gaffney, who the Southern Poverty Law Center has repeatedly called “extremists” who run hate groups, for calling President Obama a traitor, it is fair to ask whether he will have the courage to stand up to the President of the United States, as Sally Yates did.

The Attorney General is charged with enforcing the laws that protect all Americans.  No one can fulfill that obligation who is not clear-eyed about the threats facing the most vulnerable in our communities.  We need an Attorney General who will aggressively confront those who appeal to hate and fear.  I do not believe that person is Senator Sessions.  The Senate and the Judiciary Committee have heard from a multitude of civil rights, civil liberties, and domestic violence organizations, as well as nurses and numerous faith leaders, who oppose this nomination.  This Senator stands with them.

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