By Farron Cousins.
This article is reprinted from the Spring 2017 issue of The Trial Lawyer, which can be read online here.
In spite of the recent chorus of people in the United States clamoring for an alternative to status quo politicians, party loyalty still counts for everything among the elite of Washington, D.C., on both sides of the aisle. There is no better example of what loyalty to your own party can get you than the story of Jeff Sessions.
For two decades, our new Attorney General served as a U.S. Senator from the state of Alabama, where he was one of the most consistent and loyal members of the Republican Party. At every given opportunity, Sessions voted against civil rights, against expanding social safety net programs, and he stood firmly against every justice that former President Obama attempted to appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court. During the George W. Bush administration, he served as a loyal lackey for the Republican Party, standing firmly in his support for a ban on same-sex marriage and in favor cutting taxes on the rich and sending our troops to die in a war based on lies.
Sessions’ loyalty prevented him from ever becoming a target within his own party, something that even longstanding Republicans like John McCain and Mitch McConnell haven’t been able to avoid. That should paint a clear enough picture as to why current President Donald Trump tapped the Senator and former Attorney General of Alabama to be the new Attorney General of the United States. Unwavering party loyalty is always rewarded, especially when both major political parties appear to be fracturing from the inside.
But who exactly is America’s new top law enforcement officer, and what can we expect under his rule? The best place to start when trying to predict the future is to look at the past, so let’s start with the most glaringly obvious of Sessions’ faults.
The Racist Skeletons in The Closet
During Sessions’ confirmation hearings, both Senate Democrats and the media were buzzing with stories of Jeff Sessions’ racist history. But for the most part, few outlets ever took the time to really expand upon that singular talking point, opting instead to just throw out the racist label without offering the full context of just how bad a Sessions appointment would be for African Americans in the United States. While he was a U.S. Attorney in Mobile, Alabama, Sessions was discussing a case with some of his colleagues that involved two members of the Ku Klux Klan who brutally murdered a black man and hung his body from a tree. When Sessions learned that members of the Klan had smoked marijuana before the attack, he remarked to his colleagues that he thought the Klan was “okay until I found out they smoked pot.”
It was that very statement that cost him a federal judgeship in the 1980s, when both Democrats and Republicans felt the man, who claimed he was joking when he made that statement, was simply too racist to serve as an unbiased federal judge. The man who testified in that Senate hearing in the 1980s, Thomas Figures, was a black man who worked with Sessions in Mobile. Figures stated that he did not feel at all that Sessions was “joking” when he made that statement about the Klan, and that on countless occasions Sessions would refer to him as “boy” and had once told him to “be careful what you say around white folks.” Figures passed away two years before Sessions’ most recent confirmation hearing.
Meanwhile, other people who worked with Sessions at the same time came forward during that hearing in the 1980s to say that the man was completely unbiased, and without his work the state never would have been able to launch successful prosecutions against Klansmen. But those facts didn’t change the very words that had previously come out of Sessions’ mouth, and his nomination was voted down.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Not all racism is overt. Sessions is a man who was born in the state of Alabama during the time of segregation; He was in his formative years when the Civil Rights movement was taking place, and those types of life experiences are certain to have an impact on how one race views another, depending on the type of household they grew up in. While we don’t know if Sessions’ family was pro or anti desegregation, their position on what was happening all around would likely shape how Jeff himself viewed the world. And judging from his actions and words, it is likely that they weren’t welcoming desegregation with open arms. So even if Sessions wasn’t overtly racist, his actions as both a U.S. Attorney and as the 44th Attorney General of Alabama demonstrate a pattern of behavior that was nothing short of hostile towards people of color.
His most egregious act as Alabama’s Attorney General was his ruthless attempt to suppress the votes of African-Americans in the state. This is another issue that helped prevent him from becoming a federal judge in the 1980s. During his time as AG, he brought dozens of cases against African Americans who had been prominent figures in the Civil Rights movement to trial for alleged voter fraud. His office’s investigation originally swept up more than 100 black citizens of Alabama on voter fraud charges, but due to a complete lack of any evidence, those numbers fell down into the 20s in a very short time.
But the few who did end up on trial were taken 160 miles away from the state capital down to Mobile, an area that Sessions knew would give him a mostly white, if not all white, jury (ironically, the jury consisted of seven black jurors and five white ones, so Sessions’ plan backfired beautifully). The courthouse for this trial was surrounded by FBI agents and police officers, all heavily armed and ready to fire shots at anyone outside that became unruly.
Ultimately, the people brought in on charges of voter fraud were acquitted due to an overwhelming lack of evidence. But Sessions didn’t care — he made his point. Those closest to both Sessions and the defendants are very clear when they tell this story — the men were brought to trial by Sessions because they were helping African Americans register to vote, and that’s what Sessions wanted to put an end to in his state. It wasn’t about the alleged fraud (that didn’t exist); it was a message to black activists that they would go through a similar time-consuming, expensive ordeal if they decided to get their communities active. That was Sessions’ plan all along.
Friend of Wall Street
One of the biggest criticisms of President Obama’s Attorney Generals — Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch — was that they were far too lenient (friendly) with Wall Street banking criminals. Holder came from the corporate defense firm of Covington Burling which has made millions representing these banks, while Lynch actually served on the board for the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. This helps explain why the Wall Street bankers who crippled our economy right before Obama took office never saw a day in prison, instead paying paltry fines that were largely written off and paid for by taxpayers. But if those ties to Wall Street gave you shivers then Sessions’ ties to Wall Street bankers will leave you nauseated. During his time as a U.S. Senator, Sessions received a grand total of more than $2.5 million from the finance industry for his campaigns, making them his single largest industry donor. But the direct financing of his political career is only a small piece of the Sessions puzzle, and he has done everything in his power to make sure that the big banks were well taken care of when he had a say in the matter.
In 2007, Sessions was busted trying to push through legislation in the Senate that would have prevented specific banks from having to pay royalties to a tech company that developed technology to convert paper checks into digital transactions. At the time, these banks were paying billions of dollars a year to use the tech firm to use this technology, but Sessions put forth legislation that would have stopped those payments immediately. But what Sessions didn’t tell anyone is that he owned quite a bit of stock in both Citigroup and Compass Bank, two of the banks that would have been allowed to stop paying royalties under Sessions’ legislation.
It is safe to assume that given his history of coddling Wall Street, we will likely endure another four years of Wall Street bankers ripping off consumers with little to no punishment. Even the paltry fines of the Obama years will likely disappear with Sessions at the helm of the Department of Justice.
While his positions on the issues are worrisome, those aren’t even the biggest problems facing the newly-appointed Attorney General. The biggest concerns at the moment center around the fact that Sessions likely perjured himself during his confirmation hearing. Amid the growing fervor over Russia’s involvement or non-involvement in the U.S. elections and in the Trump administration itself, Sessions was asked by Democratic Senator Al Franken during his confirmation hearing if he would recuse himself should an investigation into the matter ever manifest.
This is Sessions’ response to that question:
“Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I didn’t — did not have communications with the Russians. And I’m unable to comment on it.”
It is important to note that Senator Franken did not ask Sessions if he, personally, had ever had any contact with the Russians. Sessions offered up that information completely on his own. And he was under oath, another major point to consider.
As it turns out, that voluntary piece of information during his confirmation hearing is what could ultimately prove to be his undoing, because evidence has emerged that shows that Sessions did, in fact, meet at least twice with a Russian ambassador during the presidential campaign, making his statement flat out false.
There are several important things to understand at this point. The first is that we do not know why Sessions was meeting with the ambassador. Defenders have claimed that since Sessions served on the Armed Services Committee it was only natural for him to meet with the ambassador, as this practice is common. However, other members of the Committee have confirmed that, no, this is not normal behavior. But all of that misses the point. The argument is not over what he talked to the ambassador about, the point is that the man lied under oath. For all we know the two could have been discussing the merits of pet ownership — the content of the conversation is completely irrelevant to the fact that Sessions denied the meeting under oath, and therefore likely committed perjury. The content and context of the meetings don’t matter.
In the wake of the scandal, Sessions did finally come out and say that he would recuse himself from any investigations involving meetings between the Trump campaign and Russia, but that didn’t stop Senate Democrats and even a handful of Republicans from demanding that Sessions either step down as Attorney General, or that an investigation into the potential perjury get underway.
Only time will tell at this point if the Democrats have the courage and stamina to bring perjury charges, or if they will tire and move on to other issues.
All of the factors mentioned paint a fairly depressing picture of the future of American justice under our new Attorney General. Jeff Sessions has a disturbing history of consistently being on the wrong of social issues from gender equality to marriage equality to racial equality. Couple that with his willingness to allow the “rights” of corporations to trump those of the American public and we can already predict that the next four years — or however long this man remains at the top position of the Department of Justice — are going to be ones in which American consumers are continuously stepped on as corporations get everything that they could ever want from both Attorney General Sessions and the Republicans who gave him his new power.