Thursday, January 5, 2017

Dueling Images of Attorney General Nominee Jeff Sessions Raise Concerns

Senators at next week’s confirmation hearing will confront competing versions of Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator who is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general.

His supporters will frame the 70-year-old Republican, who grew up in the segregated Jim Crow South before a career as a local GOP leader, prosecutor and elected official, as an unyielding but fair-minded conservative. Opponents looking at the same record will cast it as evidence Sessions should not wield power on sensitive matters including immigration, civil rights and national security.

Sessions, who would be a profound change from the Obama administration’s Justice Department, will almost certainly draw support from Republicans controlling the Senate and its Judiciary Committee. But the proceedings nonetheless could be a rocky opening to Sessions’ tenure and foreshadow how Democrats and like-minded advocacy groups will combat the incoming Trump administration.

“There are some gaping holes and some grave questions … about his commitment to fair and even enforcement of the law,” said Kristen Clarke of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Similar concerns cost Sessions a federal judgeship in 1986, when he confronted and denied allegations that he’d made racist comments as a U.S. attorney under President Ronald Reagan. The Judiciary Committee denied him the post, and civil rights advocates have since raised objections to his positions on voting rights, hate crime prosecutions and immigration.

Yet in Wilcox County, Alabama, where Sessions was a leading student in the all-white public high school class of 1965, and in Mobile, Alabama, where he became a local Republican Party leader and federal prosecutor, Sessions’ longtime friends speak fondly of a polite Eagle Scout and devoutly religious man they contend is unfairly caricatured.

“The man I know is an upright individual,” said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who met Sessions before either held elected office. “He is eminently qualified to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States.”

Greg Griffin, a black Alabama judge who worked as a state attorney when Sessions was Alabama attorney general, said Sessions “always treated me with respect” and called him “one of the best bosses I ever had.”

Sessions arrives at his second confirmation hearing Tuesday as one of Trump’s most prominent early supporters and a fierce critic of Obama administration policies.

He opposed the Senate’s 2013 immigration overhaul as too permissive and has advocated broad presidential powers to curtail illegal immigration, connecting lax border security to the terrorism threat. He has opposed efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, has questioned whether terrorism suspects captured overseas deserve protections of the civilian justice system and as attorney general may endorse more aggressive scrutiny of Muslims.

His record on civil rights has stirred particular concern from advocacy groups. He opposed expanding the federal hate crime definition to include violence based on sexual identity or gender orientation. He called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” legislation long before the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of it in 2013 and has repeatedly sounded alarms about the frequency of voter fraud, which current Justice Department leaders consider virtually nonexistent.

Hank Sanders, a Democratic state senator in Alabama, points to cases Sessions pursued as a prosecutor against civil rights activists in the 1980s. “They called them voter fraud cases,” said Sanders, who won acquittals for the defendants. “I called them voter persecution cases.”

Yet Sessions voted to confirm Obama’s first attorney general, Eric Holder, the first black man to lead the Justice Department. He also worked with Democratic colleagues on efforts to combat prison rape and to reduce federal sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses, saying the gap unfairly targeted the “African-American community simply because that is where crack is most often used.”

His spokeswoman, Sarah Flores, says Sessions has devoted himself to the rule of law and ensuring public safety.

“Many African-American leaders who’ve known him for decades attest to this and have welcomed his nomination to be the next attorney general,” she said in a statement.

As U.S. attorney, Sessions’ office investigated and helped secure convictions in the 1981 Ku Klux Klan lynching of Michael Donald, a black teenager found hanging from a tree.

Barry Kowalski, a retired Justice Department civil rights attorney in Washington, worked with Sessions during the investigation and said he was instrumental in securing an agreement for James Knowles to testify against fellow Klansman Henry Hays, who was eventually executed. Sessions, Kowalski said, “couldn’t have been more helpful.”

But a black attorney working as a Sessions’ assistant at the time contended that Sessions referred to him as “boy,” among other racially charged comments, during the investigation. Thomas Figures, who died in 2015, detailed his allegations at Sessions’ 1986 hearings. Kowalski said he never heard such comments.

George Alford, a Sessions friend from high school, said the scrutiny is understandable given Sessions’ biography, down to his Southern accent and given name: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.

“That sounds like a Confederate general,” Alford joked. “And any fella from Wilcox County in our generation, with that accent? Of course you’re going to get those questions.”

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