Why I told the Senate that Jeff Sessions thought civil rights groups were ‘un-American’ (The Washington Post)


I was a young lawyer in the civil rights division at the Justice Department in 1981 when I first encountered Jeff Sessions. At the time, Sessions was the new U.S. attorney for Alabama. I met him while I was handling a major 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 my supervisor 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 one day, 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 in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

When I arrived, Sen. Jeremiah Denton of 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, he’d given me an office and a support staff, and had 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. But I also felt it was my duty as a citizen to be forthright and honest about what I knew. Having my job threatened strengthened my resolve.

Sessions rebutted some of the testimony against him (including that he had called an African American prosecutor who worked for him “boy” and told him to “be careful what you say to white folks”), but he didn’t deny what I said about him. He never apologized for those comments, either, saying only that “I am loose with my tongue on occasion.”

The Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee did not approve his nomination, making him only the second nominee in 50 years to be rejected by the Senate for a federal judgeship. 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. So once again, I am adding my personal encounters with Sessions to the public record.

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, including a longtime adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., 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.

In the decades since, Sessions has promoted the myth of voter-impersonation fraud, despite overwhelming evidence that it is exceedingly rare. At the same time, he has ignored the racial impact of voting restrictions, which have a well-documented negative effect on minority communities, the impoverished and the elderly. He has disagreed that people are sometimes denied the right to vote, and in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, he proclaimed victory. Sessions asserted that “Shelby County has never had a history of denying voters” — willfully discounting the Alabama county’s recent history of discriminatory voting changes.

I served in the Justice Department for more than two decades, under 10 attorneys general. Administrations come and go, but for the most part, the career lawyers continue fighting for justice. I hope those lawyers in the civil rights division do what I and other division attorneys did when the Reagan administration came in: We continued pressing the cause of civil rights. We knew that our nation is stronger when equality under the law is not just a slogan but an enforcement policy of the Justice Department.

This piece was published on November 22, 2016 in The Washington Post. Read it here.
J. Gerald Hebert ("Gerry") is currently the Director of Voting Rights and Redistricting Program at the Campaign Legal Center, in Washington, DC. He joined the Legal Center in 2004.