Sessions as Attorney General: A ‘chilling’ choice
One LGBT legal activist called it “chilling.” Others called it “alarming” and “extreme.” Even outside the LGBT community, the reaction was unusually harsh. The NAACP called it “deeply troubling,” and the Center for American Progress said it was a “dangerous choice.”
The focus of their concern: President-elect Donald Trump announced Friday that he will nominate U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions for U.S. Attorney General.
Sessions’ hostility to equal rights for LGBT people goes back at least 20 years. In 1996, as Alabama Attorney General, he tried to stop an LGBT student conference from meeting on the University of Alabama campus, citing a newly enacted law that prohibited any university from spending public funds or using facilities for a group that “promotes a lifestyle or actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws.” The courts eventually struck the law, but Sessions went on that same year to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
There, he earned the Human Rights Campaign’s Congressional Scorecard’s lowest possible score –zero– on LGBT-related voting and issues. (In 2011, he did vote to confirm openly gay nominee J. Paul Oetken to become a U.S. district court judge in New York and raised his grade for one session to a 15.) He has consistently voting for anti-LGBT measures and against pro-LGBT measures.
He voted for various attempts to amend the U.S. constitution to limit marriage to only opposite-sex couples and for an amendment that sought to delete services to LGBT victims of domestic violence.
He voted against an effort to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and against repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
In a 2004 Senate floor speech in support of the anti-LGBT Federal Marriage Amendment, Sessions derided a Massachusetts ruling that allowed same-sex couples to marry. Sessions said it would lead to sisters marrying each other or a mother marrying her daughter.
Sessions is best known for his failed nomination to be a judge on the federal district court for Alabama. During his confirmation hearing in 1986, an African American attorney who worked with him said Sessions had referred to him as “boy.” He said Sessions told him that the KKK was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions denied the claims but his nomination, by President Reagan, was effectively lost and withdrawn.
“Trump’s nomination of Sessions for the highest law enforcement officer in our land is chilling,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights Legal Director Shannon Minter. “His record of opposing racial justice, reproductive freedom, and basic equality for women and LGBT people should be disqualifying–and would have been disqualifying at any time in the past five decades. His abysmal record on civil rights issues was disqualifying when President Reagan tried to appoint him to the federal bench. Someone who was not fit to be a federal judge is not fit to enforce the civil rights laws of our country.”
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, issued a statement, calling Sessions “vehemently anti-LGBTQ.”
“It is deeply disturbing that Jeff Sessions, who has such clear animus against so many Americans — including the LGBTQ community, women and people of color — could be charged with running the very system of justice designed to protect them,” said Griffin.
Jon Davidson, national legal director for Lambda Legal, said Sessions’ nomination is “alarming.”
“We are greatly concerned about the selection of Sessions, given the Attorney General’s role in determining the position of the federal government in lawsuits in which it is sued,” said Davidson. He noted the U.S. Attorney General also decides how the Department of Justice will enforce the Constitution and federal statutes and is in charge of filling high level positions at the Department of Justice.
President Obama’s appointees to U.S. Attorney General –Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch – have appointed openly LGBT people to important positions within DOJ. They have also put the DOJ on the side of equal rights for LGBT people in important civil rights cases. Most recently, Lynch filed suit against the state of North Carolina for enacting a state law (HB2) that was specifically aimed at allowing discrimination against LGBT people. Holder announced that the Department of Justice would argue that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also extends to prohibit gender identity discrimination. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, he instructed DOJ attorneys to respect the marriages of same-sex couples regardless of the laws of their state of residence. And mostly notably, Holder in 2011 issued the letter stating that the administration believes Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional and would no longer defend it.
“We expect tough times ahead,” said Davidson. “Jeff Sessions has a lengthy history of opposing civil rights.”
He also has a lengthy record of opposing openly LGBT judicial nominees and grilling other nominees who made decisions that upheld equal rights for LGBT people.
He spoke and voted against the Hate Crimes Act in 2009, saying, “I don’t think it [is] ever appropriate” to bring up such legislation on the defense bill. He also said the bill was “unwarranted,” that it would “cheapen the civil rights movement,” and that it “creates a new system of justice for individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, providing them with a special protection.…”
“Gays and lesbians,” said Sessions on the floor of the Senate, “have not been denied basic access to things such as health or schooling or to the ballot box.”