I was a young lawyer in the civil rights division at the Justice Department in 1981 when I first encountered Jeff Sessions, then the new U.S. attorney for Alabama. I met him while I was handling a voting rights case in Mobile, and I relayed a rumor I’d heard: A federal judge there had allegedly referred to a civil rights lawyer as “a traitor to his race” for taking on black clients. Sessions responded, “Well, maybe he is.”
Five years later, that startling incident came up again, after Sessions was nominated for a federal judgeship. The American Bar Association contacted me and to ask for background on Sessions, as was standard in those days for judicial confirmations. I told the ABA about conversations I’d had with the U.S. attorney in which he referred to the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union as “un-American.” As he saw it, by fighting for racial equality, these groups were “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them.”
I assumed that my deposition for the ABA would remain confidential, until I got a surprise call. A car would be picking me up at the Justice Department in 30 minutes to take me to the Hill, where I would testify about Sessions before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
When I arrived, Sen. Jeremiah Denton, R-Alabama, and a congressional staffer took me into a back room. The testimony on Sessions was going south, and they told me to get in there and straighten it out — or my job would be in jeopardy.
Before the threats, I had been conflicted about testifying. I knew Sessions pretty well from my time in Alabama. He hadn’t interfered with my work on the case and he’d been fairly welcoming — he’d meet with me over a cup of coffee, and we’d shoot the breeze. I felt ambivalent about potentially harming the career of a former colleague.
And then I offered my testimony.
Sessions rebutted some of the testimony against him, but he didn’t deny what I said about him. The Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee did not approve his nomination. I never had any contact with Sessions again.
Thirty years later, Sessions has been tapped to be the federal government’s top attorney, charged with enforcing the law fairly and protecting the civil rights of all Americans. I have little faith that he will. The comments I heard him make are three decades old, but his consistent policy positions over the years speak volumes. He falsely charged three African-American civil rights activists in Alabama, with 29 counts of mail fraud, altering absentee ballots and attempting to vote multiple times. The evidence showed that these activists were simply helping elderly African-American voters complete mail-in ballots. All were acquitted of every charge.
He has promoted the myth of voter-impersonation fraud despite overwhelming evidence that it is exceedingly rare. He has ignored the racial impact of voting restrictions, which have a well-documented negative effect on minority communities, the impoverished and the elderly.
This is the man President-elect Donald Trump has selected to be in charge of enforcing the Voting Rights Act and all of our federal civil rights laws. It should make every American shudder.
J. Gerald Hebert is director of the voting rights and redistricting program at the Campaign Legal Center.
The Washington Post