Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been selected to lead the Department of Justice, but many prominent politicians and organizations have lobbied the Senate to reject his confirmation, claiming that he could not administer justice on behalf of black Americans because he is racist. However, a close examination of the accusations against Sessions reveals that he is not racist. Because the charges of racism are erroneous, the Senate should confirm Sessions.
Before analyzing whether it is right to accept Sessions, one must consider the purpose of Senatorial consent for cabinet positions. From the framers onward, the “advice and consent” identified in the Constitution (Article II, Section 2) has implied that senators should consider the character of nominees rather than their particular policy beliefs or philosophies. Thus, if the Senate establishes that Sessions harbors racial prejudices, then they should reject him due to his character. However, as the Senate merely disagrees with his policy proposals about how to solve racial problems, they should confirm him.
Sessions has faced numerous accusations of racism. According to the NAACP, Sessions should not be confirmed because, “he was denied appointment as a federal judge in 1986 for a slew of racist comments, including calling the work of the NAACP and ACLU ‘Un-American.’ He has also repeatedly spoken out against the federal Voting Rights Act.”
Sessions has been especially dogged by this first point, but the fact that he was denied appointment by the Democratic Senate of 1986 does not in and of itself prove anything; rather, it only suggests that the lawmakers evaluating him at that time considered him to be unfit. Congressmen are fallible, and one of the senators who voted against him even recanted the vote later, admitting that it was a political play.
Additionally, combing through attacks on Sessions shows that many of the references to ‘racist comments’ are unsourced, as they are in the NAACP’s attack. This does not mean the claims are necessarily lies or unsubstantiated, but it invites a consideration of the evidence that has actually been provided. The evidence is slim for the two comments cited above. Calling an organization ‘un-American’ is not racist unless the reason the organization is ‘un-American’ is that it promotes racial equality. The context and reason for Sessions’s claim must be considered. According to Thomas Figures, who originally raised this comment in the 1986 hearings, “On the day in question, Mr. Sessions came into my office just as I was reading a newspaper account of some the recent action of the NAACP. I casually mentioned that development to Mr. Sessions. Mr. Sessions in response stated that he believed the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Operation PUSH and the National Conference of Churches were all un-American organizations teaching anti-American values.”
Defending himself at the hearing, Sessions said that “They may have taken positions that I consider to be averse to the security interests of the United States.” In the same article, Sessions explained that his comments may have represented poor judgment, but that he made them in response to an article in the paper about the organizations’ sympathies for communist regimes. Disagreeing with the foreign-policy stance of a civil rights organization does not constitute racism.
Sessions has repeatedly denied other allegations from Figures—the same black attorney who then-federal prosecutor Sessions allegedly called ‘boy’ and suggested should “be careful” when speaking to a white secretary. Sessions must be given the benefit of the doubt in these instances, as there is no method of verifying Figures’s claims. As Figures passed away in 2015, making even an explanation of the evidence impossible, Sessions must be presumed innocent with regard to his charges. Just as with any other unsubstantiated allegation, this claim by Figures cannot change our evaluation of Sessions’s character.
On voting rights, Sessions is most frequently attacked because of his work in a case of voter fraud in the 1984 primaries of Perry County, Alabama. Sessions has been portrayed by his accusers as waging a racist crusade to disenfranchise black voters. Then-US Attorney Sessions was called to investigate Albert and Evelyn Turner and Spencer Hogue for potentially altering many absentee ballots before mailing them. Sessions’s investigation was, in fact, requested by the incumbent black legislator in the race, along with the district attorney. An FBI investigation of the documents revealed that twenty-seven of the ballots had been re-marked. Despite this, all three individuals were eventually acquitted. Given that Sessions was called upon by relevant powers to investigate, and that meaningful evidence of voter fraud was found, Sessions evidently did not wage a racist crusade against black voters.
Sessions’ methods of investigation, some argue, were harmful to the black community, targeting community activists and suppressing black votes. As the Turners were community activists who fought for the implementation of the Voting Rights Act, the claim is worth consideration. However, given the statement of Albert Turner Jr., Turner’s son, Sessions should be exonerated of this charge.
“I have known Senator Sessions for many years, beginning with the voter fraud case in Perry County in which my parents were defendants. My differences in policy and ideology with him do not translate to personal malice. He is not a racist. As I have said before, at no time then or now has Jeff Sessions said anything derogatory about my family. He was a prosecutor at the Federal level with a job to do. He was presented with evidence by a local District Attorney that he relied on, and his office presented the case. That’s what a prosecutor does. I believe him when he says that he was simply doing his job.”
Turner’s statement effectively defends Sessions’s work during the case against his father and shows the goodwill Sessions has fostered with the black community in the areas he has worked with them.
On legislation, some disagree with Sessions’s view that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a violation of the Constitution. While at first glance this may seem extreme and reactionary, the section which Sessions disagrees with, Section 5, is the same one which the Supreme Court has held to be unconstitutional under the Fifteenth Amendment. Sessions’s alignment with the Supreme Court should not be disqualifying.
Critics of Sessions have raised concerns with a joke he made about the KKK: he said he thought they were ‘OK’ until he learned that they smoked marijuana. The reality is that Sessions was discussing a legal case against the KKK in which he learned that they not only lynched a black man, but also dealt drugs. Both Sessions and retired Department of Justice prosecutor Barry Kowalski stated that the statement was a joke, and Kowalski went on to say that “the way [Sessions] was portrayed was very unfair.” The joke was obviously in poor taste, but that does not change the factual record of Sessions’s history of upholding the law for all Americans. This case against the KKK is a perfect example of the work defending the rights of black Americans that Sessions’s opponents have failed to mention. Then-US Attorney Sessions pushed for an investigation into the Klan for their involvement in the murder, despite the generally hostile environment to civil rights cases in the South at the time. That Kowalski has continued to defend Sessions against charges of racism is notable because he is the liberal Democratic attorney who prosecuted the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King in 1991.
Besides these few baseless charges, there is no additional evidence of Sessions’s racism. This charge of racism proceeds from extraordinary groupthink, and it has run rampant. Even if one of these accusations were to be vindicated (which is highly unlikely), the fact that thirty years have passed since any of these instances occurred suggests that a fresh look at Sessions’s record is warranted. If the possibility of redemption from racism exists, Sessions has earned the benefit of the doubt.
Sessions has also done work to fight racism in his home state of Alabama. In United States v. Conecuh County, et al., Sessions attacked county officials for harassing and intimidating black voters at the polls. This case was the first voter suppression lawsuit ever filed by the Department of Justice, and Sessions initiated and led it. As a senator, Sessions voted in favor of extending the Civil Rights Act and voted to confirm Attorney General Eric Holder under President Obama, both important moments in the history of racial progress.
There is no evidence that Jeff Sessions will not uphold the rule of law for all Americans, regardless of their skin color, as attorney general. He has been smeared by his opponents with accusations of racism because they are unwilling to state that they truly oppose him because of their differing philosophy on how to solve drug problems and enforce the law. However, as it is the test of character and experience that the Senate is meant to consider, not the philosophy of the nominee, the Senate should confirm Sessions.
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