During his confirmation hearings for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions attempted to whitewash his dubious record on civil rights, and Republicans condemned Democrats for critically examining and challenging Sessions’ presentation of his record. Now that Sessions is on the job, his true colors are revealed, as he reverses Obama administration efforts to protect voters against discriminatory laws in a federal court case.
In one of his first acts as Attorney General, former Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions dropped a Justice Department challenge to a Texas voter ID law that was ruled intentionally discriminatory against minorities and the poor by federal courts. Sessions decided that the Justice Department would no longer pursue discrimination charges against the State of Texas, reversing Obama administration policy in the matter. He appears to trust that modifications to the voter ID law undertaken by Republican lawmakers in Texas will no longer violate the law, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The Trump administration’s motion to drop the discrimination claim was a sharp change under Sessions, who took charge of the Justice Department 2½ weeks ago.
As recently as November, the agency under the Obama administration — which joined the lawsuit against Texas in 2013 — argued that Texas Republicans passed the law to intentionally discriminate against Latino and black voters, two fast-growing segments of the population that tend to favor Democrats.
"Compelling evidence establishes that Texas enacted (the voter ID law) at least in part because of its detrimental effects on African-American and Hispanic voters," the agency told Ramos in November.
On Monday, however, the Justice Department said it will no longer pursue the discrimination claim because SB 5 includes many of the voter ID changes ordered by Ramos for the November general election — allowing, for example, a wider array of identification for those without a government-issued photo ID.
This is a troubling development that confirms Democrats’ fears, that Sessions will spearhead a shift away from protecting voters from discriminatory voter suppression tactics and towards the Trump administration’s discredited focus on nonexistent voter fraud. Voting rights advocates and victims of voter suppression efforts are justifiably concerned:
The switch in the government's position comes amid unverified — and widely discredited — claims by Trump that millions of people voted illegally in November. He has asked Vice President Mike Pence to lead an investigation into those claims. Voting rights activists are worried that the new administration and state legislatures under Republican control will use the inquiry to justify more voting restrictions.
On a personal note, as a African-American native of Texas, whose family has witnessed voter suppression efforts at the polls firsthand, this action is beyond troubling.
When Donald Trump nominated Sessions as his pick for Attorney General last November, Shareblue reported on the hostility that both the Trump team in general, and Sessions in particular, displayed towards the protection of voting rights. Sessions once called the Voting Rights Act "an intrusive piece of legislation," and, as an Alabama U.S. Attorney, he initiated a discredited campaign to intimidate Black voting rights advocates, which was overturned by the courts.
Sessions also took great pains to whitewash his past record on civil rights and voting rights. He made numerous misrepresentations to convey the impression that he was actually a champion of civil and voting rights — a fallacy that was resoundingly debunked by witnesses, including former Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick, civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), members of the legal community including more than 1,300 prominent law professors, and transcripts of Sessions’ own words and writings to the contrary. Senator Al Franken (D-MN), in particular, did a thorough takedown of Sessions’ misrepresentations and inaccuracies during the confirmation hearing.
But of course, Democrats and civil and voting rights advocates were greatly criticized by Republicans for pointing out untruths or examining the accuracy of Sessions’ presentation of his record and qualifications, despite the fact that Sessions’ record on matters of race and civil rights, including racist statements to employees and others, did not pass Congressional muster when President Ronald Reagan attempted to appoint him to a federal judgeship in 1986.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), in particular, condemned this fair and open examination of Sessions’ record, commenting that "[a] lot of unfair things have been said about our colleague from Alabama in recent weeks." And he notoriously shut down Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) attempt to read on the Senate floor the letter submitted to the Senate in 1986 by civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, which described Sessions as someone who "used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens."
And since his confirmation as Attorney General, Sessions has proven that the things said about him were not in the least "unfair," and that the vehement skepticism regarding his self-proclaimed support of civil rights and voting rights was warranted.