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Jeff Sessions’ Disturbing Record on Civil Rights, LGBT Equality

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Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general. | SESSIONS.SENATE.GO
Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general. | SESSIONS.SENATE.GOV

Jeff Sessions, the four-term Republican US senator from Alabama who has been tapped by President-elect Donald Trump as the nation’s next attorney general, has a stridently anti-LGBT record, along with a troubling history on racial issues.

Much of the recent attention on Sessions, who this week had been discussed as a possible choice for a number of Cabinet slots, including secretary of defense, focused on his incendiary comments about race – a key factor in the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee’s rejection of his 1986 nomination to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan.

Sessions also has a uniform record in opposing LGBT rights advances.

“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,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a written statement today. “When Donald Trump was elected, he promised to be a president for all Americans, and it is hugely concerning and telling that he would choose a man so consistently opposed to equality as one of his first – and most important – Cabinet appointees.”

In HRC Congressional Scorecards dating back more than a decade, Sessions received scores of zero for every two-year session, except for the 112th Congress in 2011 and 2012, when he received a 15 percent rating. In that Congress, he voted in favor of President Barack Obama’s nomination of J. Paul Oetken to the Southern District of New York federal bench, making him the first out gay man to win confirmation as an Article III judge. (Oetken was recommended to the president by Senator Chuck Schumer, who will become the minority leader in January.)

In that same Congress, however, Sessions voted to deny confirmation to Alison J. Nathan, an out lesbian who was another Obama nomination, also recommended by Schumer, to the Southern District. He also voted in favor of an unsuccessful amendment to the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) that would have stripped nondiscrimination protections for domestic violence victims based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, and Native American and immigrant status.

In other years, Sessions voted in favor of a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He consistently voted against VAWA Reauthorization that included nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity and opposed Obama on other out LGBT nominees, including Staci Michelle Yandle for the Southern District of Illinois federal court, Darrin P. Gayles for the Southern District of Florida bench, and Chai Feldblum for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At the EEOC, Feldblum has played a critical role in moving the agency toward an affirmative posture toward having sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination claims recognized as sex discrimination already prohibited under federal law.

Sessions also opposed the end of the ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants to the US and supported a measure that would have required the District of Columbia to hold a referendum on its 2009 municipal ordinance legalizing marriage by same-sex couples. During the past two years, he opposed measures ensuring that legally married same-sex couples have access to Social Security and veterans benefits, that runaway and homeless youth programs funded by the federal government have explicit LGBT nondiscrimination policies, and that public schools be barred from discriminating against youth based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to WKRG.com, just days after the US Supreme Court issued its 2015 Obergefell marriage equality ruling, Sessions told an Alabama Chamber of Commerce meeting, “If a court can do that on a question of marriage then it can do it on almost any other issue. What this court did was unconstitutional, what this court did – they can’t do, nothing in the Constitution for such a result, no mention of marriage in the Constitution. Well, I don’t know, some say it will be like abortion where it continues festering with the American people. Sometimes the court thinks it can just make a ruling and an issue will go away, so I don’t know how this one will play out in the years to come.”

Right Wing Watch reported that, several days later, Sessions, speaking to the Phyllis Schlafly-founded Eagle Forum Collegian Summit, warned, “We are at a period of secularization in America that I think is very dangerous. It erodes the very concept of truth, the very concept of right and wrong, and there are people out there who enjoy attacking people who follow biblical directives.”

In what can only be taken as snide dismissal of LGBT families, Sessions also said, “People could get married before the Supreme Court ruling, two people could call themselves married… go off at the beach and have flowers and play rock music.”

Since the Obergefell ruling, Sessions has signed on to the First Amendment Defense Act, which would provide an out for those claiming a religious objection to same-sex marriage or to sex outside of different-sex marriage from any federal prosecution or penalties for discrimination. The measure would shield recalcitrant county clerks like Kim Davis in Kentucky who refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but could also provide exemptions for all kinds of other businesses and individuals to discriminate.

During the George W. Bush administration, Sessions was the senator behind the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals nomination of William H. Pryor, Jr., whom Lambda Legal termed “the most demonstrably anti-gay judicial nominee in recent memory.” As Alabama’s attorney general, Pryor had written a friend-of-the-court brief defending the Texas sodomy law when it went before the Supreme Court – and was struck down – in 2003. In that brief, he compared gay rights claims to protections for “prostituti­on, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia.” In 1996, when the Supreme Court struck down Colorado’s Amendment 2, which barred the state or any municipality from enacting LGBT nondiscrimination legislation, Pryor criticized the decision as “new rules for political correctness.” Before Pryor’s confirmation by the Senate, he sat on the 11th Circuit temporarily due to a Bush recess appointment, during which time he cast the tie-breaking vote that kept that court from rehearing an appeals panel ruling that upheld Florida’s anti-gay adoption law.

Pryor was the first judge cited by Trump, during his campaign, as a potential Supreme Court nominee.

An opponent of the Voting Rights Act and immigration reform, Sessions also faces harsh criticism from progressive groups working on those issues, with the American Civil Liberties Union terming his record anti-civil rights.

During hearings for his failed federal bench nomination in 1986, Thomas Figures, an African-American former assistant US attorney who worked under him when Sessions was the US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, testified that Sessions had called him “boy” and warned him to be careful what he said to “white folks.” Sessions denied using the word “boy” and said he merely urged caution in talking to “folks.”

Asked about having said he considered the Ku Klux Klan “okay” until he learned that its members smoked pot, Sessions explained it “was a silly comment, I guess you might say, that I made.” The statement was made while he was investigating the 1981 murder of Michael Donald, a black man kidnapped and killed by Klansmen who slit his throat and then hanged his body in a tree, according to the Associated Press.

Gerry Hebert, who as a Justice Department official also worked with Sessions while he was a US attorney in the 1980s, recalled that Sessions had once agreed with another person's comment that a white civil rights attorney was “a disgrace to his race” for litigating voting rights cases.

“I filed all these things away thinking, ‘God, what a racist this guy is,’” Hebert told the AP.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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