Why the Controversy over Attorney General Nominee Jeff Sessions?

Students learn and discuss Donald Trump's nominee for Attorney General, his background, and what happened at his confirmation hearing.    



1. Who of the following has been appointed by President Trump for a cabinet position?

a. Rep. Steve Lessons
b. Gov. Pat Cushions
c. Sen. Jeff Sessions
d. Rev. John Grisham
e. Steve Bannon

Answer: c. Steve Bannon (e) is a special advisor to Trump; not a member of the cabinet

2. After a president (or president-elect) announces a cabinet appointment, which of the following occurs?

a. Nothing
b. A big party
c. The Supreme Court swears the person to uphold the Constitution
d. The Joint Chiefs of Staff give the nominee a written test
e. The Senate votes on the nomination
f.  All of the above

Answer: e

3. True or False

Senator Sessions stated that "Good people don't smoke marijuana."

Answer: True (at a Senate hearing on drugs in April 2016)


Student Reading:
Attorney General Nominee Jeff Sessions

During the week of January 9, 2017, the Senate Judiciary held hearings to confirm Donald Trump's appointment of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General of the United States. Sessions is a conservative senator from Alabama and was the first senator to endorse Trump in the presidential primaries. Democrats and a broad array of civil rights organizations oppose Sessions' appointment because of the senator's longtime opposition to civil rights enforcement.

What does the Attorney General do?

The appointment of Attorney General may be the most important of all presidential appointments. The Department of Justice, which the Attorney General leads, is enormous, with over 100,000 employees and a $30 billion budget. The DOJ handles all legal work relating to the federal government. This includes the enforcement of criminal, civil, anti-trust, environmental, and tax law. And, civil rights law. The Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Marshals, the FBI, and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are all within the Department of Justice. In addition to supervising these agencies, the Attorney General is in charge of all 93 U.S. Attorneys assigned to specific states and regions. The Attorney General has extensive powers relating to immigration (a top priority of Jeff Sessions). He or she enforces immigration laws and oversees immigration courts.


Sessions began his political career as Assistant U.S. Attorney and then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. In 1986, he was nominated by President Reagan to be a federal district judge. The nomination drew opposition from individuals and groups presenting evidence of Sessions' prejudice against African-Americans. Some of the allegations were verifiable and some were never proven. The instances included:

  • referring to a Black Assistant U.S. Attorney as "boy" and warning him to be careful what he said to "white folks"
  • saying that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was "okay" until he found out they smoked pot
  • calling the NAACP (and ACLU) un-American and teaching "anti-American values"
  • stating that a white civil right lawyer was a "disgrace to his race"

Sessions denied that he made some of the comments and attributed others to misunderstandings, but the Judiciary Committee voted against his nomination--with two Republicans joining the committee's Democrats.

Jeff Sessions continued as U.S. Attorney, was later elected as Alabama's Attorney General, and in 1996 was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Confirmation Hearings

In an article in Politico, Sen. Ted Cruz wrote that Sessions was a highly qualified candidate for Attorney General who "believes in the foundational idea that we are governed by objectively knowable, written rules, and that we should not be subject to the interpretive whims of unelected, power-hungry bureaucrats."

The Trump transition team argued that Sessions had "worked inside the Department of Justice for 15 years  and loves the department, its people, and its mission."

But opponents to Sessions' appointment cite his consistent opposition to civil rights and civil liberties throughout his career. They note that Sessions:

  • used the Voting Rights Act (which is designed to protect the rights of African-Americans to vote) to prosecute three Black voting rights advocates for helping elderly black voters fill out ballots. (The judge threw out some of the charges and the jury acquitted them of the rest.)
  • supports voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect Black voters
  • defended Alabama's execution of mentally ill and intellectually disabled criminals convicted under an Alabama justice system that is tainted with a history of racially discriminatory prosecution
  • worked to make state executions easier and applied more broadly
  • voted for a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriages
  • expressed doubts that "secularist" attorneys can claim to understand the "truth"
  • opposed legislation that would extend protection against hate crimes to gender minorities
  • opposed bipartisan criminal justice reform aimed at reducing sentences for nonviolent (mainly drug) offenses
  • labeled the Voting Rights Act as "intrusive"
  • Sessions has argued against those who charge that our law enforcement system is biased. He stated: "In the last several years, law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the actions of a few bad actors and for allegations about police that were not true."

Sessions is a hard-liner on immigration issues. He led an effort to undo executive orders by President Obama that loosened restrictions on immigrants. Sessions also led the uphill battle to defeat the immigration reform bill supported by the Democratic and Republican congressional leadership. The bill was defeated.

Senator Sessions has denied that he was (or is) a racist, and several Black colleagues vouched for his fairness. He characterized the accusations that he used racist language as "damnably false." Supporters also pointed to Sessions' consistent efforts to memorialize civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Sessions said he did not endorse President Trump's campaign promises to reinstate torture to interrogate terrorism suspects, create a registry of Muslims in America, or ban Muslims from entering the country. Questioned by Democratic senators, Sessions insisted that he would uphold even those laws he disagreed with (e.g. legalization of abortion).

Two Black members of Congress testified against the nomination.  Alabama Rep. John Lewis, a leader and hero of the civil rights movement, spoke of his concern that Sessions would not see helping people who are discriminated against as part of his job:

It doesn’t matter whether Sen. Sessions may smile or how friendly he may be, whether he may speak to you. We need someone who will stand up and speak up and speak out for the people who need help, for people who are being discriminated against. And it doesn’t matter whether they are Black or white, Latino, Asian or Native American, whether they are straight or gay, Muslim, Christian or Jews.

Sen. Corey Booker also made the point that the civil rights struggle did not end with the Supreme Court-ordered desegregation or the Voting Rights Act. Booker  sees a commitment to simply uphold the law as insufficient.  He said he views the active pursuit of  civil rights for all as a central responsibility of the Attorney General. "Law and order without justice is unobtainable," he said.  "They are inextricably tied together."

Protesters interrupted Sessions’ confirmation hearings on numerous occasions. They denounced the nominee's statements and positions on women's rights, immigrants’ rights, and the rights of people of color. Two men dressed in Ku Klux Klan attire were escorted out, as the hearings began. Code Pink and a group called Refusefascism.org took credit for organizing the protests.

Sen. Sessions needs only 51 votes to win confirmation. As of January 17, that confirmation looks likely: no Republican has voiced opposition and one Democrat (Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia) has vowed to vote with the Republican majority to confirm.


For Discussion

  1. Is it fair to judge a candidate on the basis of statements or actions thirty years on the past?
  2. Should appointees for Attorney General be held to a higher standard of civil rights advocacy than other appointees (because one of their duties is to enforce civil rights laws)?
  3. Do you think that disturbing the hearings is a legitimate form of protest?
  4. Several Black colleagues of Sessions have testified that he is not a racist. How much weight should be given to this testimony?
  5. During his testimony, Sen. John Lewis made the statement below. What did he mean? How did the "rule of law" violate people's rights before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s? How might the rule of law violate the rights of the dispossessed today?

We can pretend that the law is blind. We can pretend that it is even-handed. But if   we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are called upon daily by the people we represent to help them deal with unfairness in how the law is written and enforced. Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Sen. Sessions’ call for "law and order" will mean today what it meant in Alabama, when I was coming up back then. The rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.