President Barack Obama’s federal Justice Department has focused on civil rights for LGBT people and African-Americans — including by targeting North Carolina’s House Bill 2 and voter ID law as unconstitutional — but those issues may not find the same prominence under President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the next U.S. attorney general.
Jeff Sessions, the Republican senator from Alabama whose nomination for a federal judicial post was rejected during the Reagan presidency because of racially charged comments he made, could be the country’s top prosecutor if the U.S. Senate confirms him.
There is much uncertainty about what Trump’s style as president will be – whether he will be hands-on over his administration or leave large decisions up to his Cabinet and administrative selections – and some attorneys in North Carolina say it’s impossible to predict what could happen to the state’s HB2 or elections law challenges.
“We really, truly are looking at crystal balls at this point,” said Christopher G. Browning, a Raleigh lawyer who was North Carolina’s first solicitor general.
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“I would not predict that the direction of the Department of Justice will move on a dime,” Browning said. “It is more likely to be more of a gradual change in position.”
But given that Sessions, considered one of the most conservative members of the Senate, is expected by those who know him to push for wholesale changes and hard-line stances on immigration, terrorism, crime, drugs and guns, civil rights advocates say they are troubled about changes in store.
Sessions served during the Reagan administration as the U.S. attorney for Southern Alabama. In 1986, the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination to the federal bench as a U.S. District Court judge on a 10-8 vote, after allegations surfaced about racist and other insensitive remarks.
Seeking to rebut criticisms from civil rights advocates, Trump transition team spokesman Jason Miller added that Sessions, while U.S. attorney, “filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama.” As a senator, Miller said, Sessions supported extension of the Civil Rights Act and “spearheaded effort to give the Congressional Gold Medal” to civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
Congressional records show that the chief sponsor of the 1999 measure honoring Parks was then-Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan, though Sessions was an early co-sponsor and joined 85 other senators in the unanimous vote in support.
Sessions cheered the 2013 Supreme Court decision that nullified a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and he has, in the past, supported state voter ID laws that supporters say target voter fraud but critics say disproportionately make voting more difficult for African-Americans.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson who soon will leave his post as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, is concerned about Sessions’ record on civil rights and protecting voting rights. The U.S. attorney general position, Butterfield said, is perhaps the most important decision a president can make – something Obama signaled eight years ago when he made his first public Cabinet selection former Attorney General Eric Holder.
“It’s the Department of Justice that has to be on the front line and set the example,” Butterfield said, noting ongoing national issues ranging from police brutality and misconduct to the debate over transgender and gay rights.
The Justice Department has weighed in on those issues through its Civil Rights Division – an office that was established in 1957 with bipartisan support and Republicans leading the charge for its creation.
Holder and his successor Loretta Lynch, a North Carolina native who has spoken critically about the direction that GOP leaders in the state house and governor’s office have taken her home state, have intervened with lawsuits on election law and gay and transgender rights issues.
Should Sessions make it to the point of a Senate confirmation hearing, Butterfield says the Alabama lawmaker needs to commit to preserving civil rights for all Americans. “I hope Senator Sessions will look into the camera ... and say that he abhors discrimination in any form, including transgender discrimination. We’re in the 21st century now.”
Butterfield and other black leaders in Congress have been particularly active in recent years in asking for more federal oversight and involvement in cases of police shootings. The next leader of the Civil Rights Division will set the pace for the administration’s actions on that issue. Typically, the president and attorney general select the head of that division.
Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s junior senator from Mecklenburg County, called Sessions a friend and praised the former prosecutor as a colleague on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“While Senator Sessions and I certainly don’t agree on the specifics of every major issue, including immigration reform and criminal justice reform, he always expresses our policy differences in the form of productive and gracious exchanges of ideas,” Tillis said in a statement Friday.
Tough questioning could be coming from others on the Senate judiciary panel, including incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York who works out with Sessions and has raised concerns about the future of the Civil Rights Division.
Thomas Walker, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, an Obama appointee as the top prosecutor for the 44 counties from Raleigh to the coast, raised many questions about what the Justice Department under Sessions’ leadership might entail.
“Beyond national security, what will be DOJ’s other main priorities?” Walker said. “Will there be a de-emphasis on alleged corporate wrong-doing? Will bipartisan sentencing reform measures go by the wayside? All very important issues to watch.”
Gene Nichol, a law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has been a vocal critic of the North Carolina Republican leadership and its political agenda, is troubled by Sessions’ positions.
“The U.S. Department of Justice is called to be a foundational guardian for American civil rights,” said “I know many think the Trump administration is an interesting comedy. But the early returns indicate a constitutional nightmare.”
Michael Doyle and William Douglas of McClatchy contributed.