Sessions' Senate career shows mixed record on Voting Rights Act support

WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeff Sessions in 2006 agreed the Voting Rights Act should live on for another 25 years, but that lone vote does not reflect the attorney general nominee’s previous efforts to dismantle a key tool for enforcing the law in the South.

President-elect Donald Trump last week said he wants the Alabama senator to run the Justice Department, putting Sessions’ record on race in the spotlight. Thirty-year-old allegations he used racially offensive language have been a focal point, so Sessions’ allies are fighting back with character references and endorsements from African Americans.

Part of their defense has been to note that Sessions voted to renew the Voting Rights Act 10 years ago when it was last up for reauthorization in Congress. The landmark law since 1965 has protected the rights of minorities to have their voices heard in an electoral process that once banned them.

President George W. Bush signed the law’s renewal in 2006 after Congress approved it with overwhelming bipartisan support, including Sessions, who acknowledged his state’s shameful history of poll taxes and literacy tests, and applauded the law’s role in its progress.

“The people of Alabama understand that these changes in our state are good, and they do not want to do anything that would suggest that there is any interest in moving away from the great right to vote. We want to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act,” Sessions said then.

But for many years beforehand, Sessions was part of a campaign of Southern Republicans who believed the law had become an unfair, outdated burden that didn’t reflect the increased black voter registration and number of black elected officials. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, places with a history of persistent discrimination — like Alabama — couldn’t run their elections without special oversight and approval of a watchful federal government.

Sessions argued as early as 1996, before he ran for the U.S. Senate, that the Voting Rights Act was being used to engineer certain political outcomes, not just protect access to the ballot box. As Alabama attorney general, Sessions opposed two legal actions — taken in the name of the Voting Rights Act — that civil rights advocates believed would have improved the chances for blacks to be elected as judges in Alabama. Sessions defeated both.

 

In 1997, his first year in the Senate, Sessions' protégé and successor testified to Congress that Section 5 should be repealed or amended. Then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor called it "an affront to federalism and an expensive burden that has far outlived its usefulness.”

In 2006 when Congress started holding hearings about reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, Sessions was among those who questioned the need for Section 5, which required state and local election officials in nine states to submit every election-related change to a federal judge or the Department of Justice to determine whether it was unfair to minority voters.

Sessions said he wanted Congress to “see if there are other areas of the country that might ought to be covered by some of these provisions, see if there are some areas that are covered now that no longer need to be.”

In the end, Congress decided to renew the 1965 law without changing or repealing Section 5. Sessions went along, but with reservations.

“I am worried because… (the extension) does little to acknowledge the tremendous progress made over the past 40 years in Alabama and other covered jurisdictions,” Sessions said then.

The Senate voted 98-0 to renew the Voting Rights Act.“Everybody voted, of course, for reauthorization. Everyone. So I don’t want to say he gets no credit for it, but he gets very little credit for it,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, which is opposing Sessions’ nomination.

Sessions’ concerns about the voting law were validated in 2013 when the Supreme Court, in a case from Alabama, issued a ruling that meant Section 5 could not be enforced without being updated. The ruling immediately freed the election machinery of the South from the federal oversight.

Without Section 5's ability to proactively identify potential problems, civil rights activists and the Justice Department have had to work side by side to investigate allegations of voter discrimination. They are not confident that the partnership they’ve had with President Obama’s two attorneys general would continue with the same vigilance under an Attorney General Sessions, who agreed with the Supreme Court decision.

“It’s hard to imagine he would devote the same time, effort and resources to ensure the Department of Justice is doing all it could to ensure that voting rights are protected,” said Todd Cox, director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

It appears unlikely that any Republican senators will join Democratic opponents to the Sessions’ nomination, which is subject to Senate confirmation. Even leading Trump critic Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sessions is worthy of the job.

“These attacks on his personal character, about him being some kind of closet racist or what he may have said thirty or forty years ago is complete garbage,” Graham told Fox News. “Jeff Sessions is one of the finest people I have ever known. I don’t think there is a hateful bone in his body.”

Sessions has not directly addressed how the Justice Department would pursue voting rights investigations if he were in charge, but he referenced the agency’s commitment to justice in a statement after his nomination.

“I love the department, its people and its mission,” Sessions said. “I can think of no greater honor than to lead them… I enthusiastically embrace President-elect Trump’s vision for ‘one America,’ and his commitment to equal justice under the law.”

USA TODAY


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