Sessions brings conservative voice to Justice Dept.
Washington — The Senate confirmation hearing of Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, is likely to rehash racially charged allegations that derailed his efforts to become a federal judge and made him a symbol of black-voter intimidation under the Reagan administration.
The expected focus on Sessions’ record on race, policing and immigration comes as the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has surged in prominence under the Obama administration. If confirmed, Sessions would have broad latitude to define how federal prosecutors across the country wield their powers and make changes to the Justice Department’s priorities.
Lawmakers and advocates expressed concern Friday that Sessions could sideline or undo the Obama administration’s civil rights efforts, which have included investigations of police departments for unconstitutional practices and lawsuits meant to protect the rights of transgender individuals and black voters.
“Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what he would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and want to hear what he has to say,” said incoming Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said he strongly supported Sessions, who he said “has worked tirelessly to safeguard the public and to improve the lives of Americans from all walks of life.”
Sessions’ peers on the Senate Judiciary Committee will almost certainly delve into the Alabama senator’s past statements on race. The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, hinted as much on Friday, saying the “American people deserve to learn about Senator Sessions’ record.”
Leahy voted against Sessions for a district judgeship when he last came before the Judiciary Committee in 1986.
During that hearing, Sessions was criticized for joking in the presence of a Civil Rights Division attorney that the Ku Klux Klan was “OK” until he learned they smoked marijuana. He was also said to have called a black assistant U.S. attorney “boy” and the NAACP “un-American” and “communist-inspired.”
Sessions, a former prosecutor, has said the racially charged allegations against him have been painful to him and an unfair stain on his reputation. He called the matter “heartbreaking” in a 2009 CNN interview and described the allegations as “false charges.”
In defending his record, Sessions is likely to point to his vote to confirm Eric Holder as the country’s first black attorney general and to his co-sponsorship of the Fair Sentencing Act, which sought to reduce racial disparities in how black and white drug offenders are treated.
When he was U.S. attorney in Alabama, his office investigated the 1981 murder of Michael Donald, a black man who was kidnapped, beaten and killed by two Klansmen who hanged his body in a tree. The two men were later arrested and convicted.
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