Sen. Sessions: Unfit for Justice

Trump’s choice for Attorney General is hostile to civil rights.

President-elect Trump has announced his intention to name Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to the position of Attorney General.  This Confederate general namesake couldn’t be a worse fit for the job.

As you probably know by now, former President Reagan nominated Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1985 when he was serving as the U.S. Attorney for Alabama.  Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected him after evidence of Sessions’ racism emerged. The Huffington Post, provided excerpts from the hearing, including testimony that:  Sessions derided the NAACP and the ACLU as un-American and for “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people trying to put problems behind them”; referred to a white civil rights lawyer as a traitor to his race; and warned the only African American Assistant U.S. Attorney to be careful what he said to white people.

Reagan’s selection of Sessions was all the more problematic given his unsuccessful attempt to prosecute Black civil rights leaders for allegedly engaging in voter fraud just four months earlier.

The defendants, Albert and Evelyn Turner, and Spencer Hogue Jr., collectively the “Marion Three,” had a long history of activism.  Allen Tullos provided context for their prosecution in Southern Changes.  In 1962, the Turners founded the Perry County Civil League or PCCL, which focused on such issues integrating public spaces and ensuring that poor, disabled Black senior citizens got the necessary federal aid for food and health care.

But by 1965, their bread and butter was voting rights.

That year, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, a sword and shield for minority voters.  Its provisions authorized lawsuits, but more importantly it brought the power of the federal government to bear against jurisdictions that historically suppressed voters of color.  That was the case in Pike County.

Although it was predominantly African American, Reconstruction was the last time Black voters were reflected in public office.  Thanks to the VRA, the PCCL filed lawsuits that brought federal officials to Perry County to register Blacks to vote.  PCCL members then took voters to the polls and helped them exercise this newfound right, even when armed local officials were on hand to intimidate citizens.  From 1965 until 1985, the number of registered Black voters mushroomed from 12 to over 5,000.

State officials seeking to limit the African American electorate’s power targeted the PCCL’s activities, particularly the use of absentee ballots, which enabled elderly voters to participate in elections more easily.  District Attorney Roy tried unsuccessfully to indict PCCL members in 1982 and then turned to William Bradford Reynolds, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Justice Department.  According to The Nation, Johnson and Perry County Clerk Mary Aubmertin claimed that abuse of absentee ballots in Pike County was rampant.  Reynolds referred them to U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions.

Armed with new Justice Department regulations targeting voter fraud –ostensibly to protect vulnerable voters, but in practice applied only to civil rights organizations—Sessions went to work.  Prior to the September primary, Sessions, DOJ officials, and Aubmertin secured court approval to number absentee ballots without the knowledge or consent of voters in order to determine which candidates they selected.  After the primary, FBI agents went to the homes of a dozen or so voters, asking questions about tampered ballots.  Ballots residents believed were secret.  A process in which elderly voters likely had just gained confidence wouldn’t result in harm to them or their loved ones.  This investigation continued until weeks before the general election, FBI agents fanned out to interrogate more Black voters. Then, with the help of Alabama State troopers, they loaded these elderly voters onto buses and drove them to Mobile, where they testified before a grand jury.

U.S. Attorney Sessions indicted the Marion Three on 29 counts conspiracy, altering absentee ballots, voting more than once, and committing mail fraud. If convicted, the Turners and Hogue faced over 100 years in prison.

A jury took less than three hours to acquit them of all the charges.

Four months later, when President Reagan nominated Sessions to the bench, fresh from this defeat, Senator Ted Kennedy said,    “Mr. Sessions’ role in the voting fraud case in Alabama alone should bar him from sitting on the bench.”

It should bar him from becoming the nation’s top law enforcement officer, too.

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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