The Attorney General, the head of the Department of Justice, is a position whose importance cannot be overstated, adjudicating matters ranging from the criminal justice system to immigration to civil rights and voting rights. The position filling this position must be sympathetic to such matters of justice and equality. After all, the operative word in “Department of Justice” is, you know, justice.
For this role, Mr. Trump has nominated Senator Jeff Sessions, a man whose hostility to civil rights and voting rights cannot be overstated.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision of Shelby County v. Holder (2013), states whose preclearance requirements with respect to the Voting Rights Act capitalized on the relaxation of voting rights regulations by passing new restrictive legislation on such issues as voter ID and the number of polling places, issues that disproportionately impact minorities and the poor.
2016 was the first presidential election that the United States had since the enactment of these new voting constraints, and we saw the egregious impact, with 868 fewer polling places than in previous elections. For example, North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and others enacted new voting restrictions by way of stricter voter ID law. The largest county in Arizona, Maricopa County, reduced the number of polling places by 70% between 2012 and 2016, from just 200 to 60. The Leadership Council on Civil Rights studied the 381 counties affected by Shelby for which data were available in 2012 or 2014, and found that 43% of them had reduced the number of voting locations.
Indeed, the number of polling place closures fits quite clearly along the lines of the states affected by the holding, with 212 closures in Arizona, 403 closures in Texas, 103 closures in Louisiana, 44 closures in Mississippi, 66 closures in Alabama, 12 closures in South Carolina, and 27 closures in North Carolina. Such closures have the result of producing inordinately long lines in order to vote, with some states providing only two hours of time away from work to vote, and some states not having any such law in place. Even if able to take time away from work (and in many cases the lines vastly exceeded two hours), there are significant opportunity costs to lost time away from work, potentially billable hours.
Amid what will soon be a very conservative Supreme Court, and a challenging terrain in which to defend voting rights for all Americans, we deserve – indeed, we require – an Attorney General who is on the side of voters. Which brings us to Jeff Sessions, whose controversial stances on civil rights include a defense of the KKK but for their use of marijuana (because that’s the real problem with them?), who characterized the NAACP and the ACLU as “Communist-inspired” and “un-American,” and who allegedly told an African American staffer that he should be careful what he said to white people. Indeed, in 1986 his past of racial discrimination disqualified him from the post of being a federal judge, and those who defend civil rights are now left praying that the 115th Congress is not more racist than the 99th Congress was.
Within the realm of voting rights, Sessions has been equally antagonistic, characterizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as a “piece of intrusive legislation,” this comment about a law that outlawed the racially discriminatory practices that violated the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. As a United States attorney in Alabama in the 1980s, he sought to prosecute an African American man for alleged voter fraud when registering African American voters (the fraud allegations were not substantiated and Sessions lost the case). Perhaps most surprising is that in the aftermath of Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Sessions denied that Shelby County, Alabama had ever had a history of voter discrimination (this coming from the state where many of the fiercest battles over voting rights were waged, as in Selma, and with civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis staunchly challenging Sessions’ characterization).
The Voting Rights Act previously had stipulated that regions with histories of racial discrimination required prior authorization from the Department of Justice before enacting new voting legislation (ahem, restrictions). While this no longer applies, doubtless voting rights cases will continue to be waged in the DOJ and in courts. Needless to say, viewing Shelby County’s current state, not to mention its prior history, as not being discriminatory toward minorities, it is not difficult to see the damage that he could easily do when tasked with adjudicating which voting restrictions are acceptable given the Voting Rights Act’s provisions (to the extent that they remain intact).
Congressional crafting of law almost always provides for some executive branch enforcement and/or rulemaking, but in some cases also provides a venue for litigants to themselves assert their rights. Indeed, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though originally a compromise with the Republican coalitions, ultimately proved to be a highly potent means through which to challenge discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or national origin. Thus, regardless of administrative decisionmaking, individuals were given a voice through courts.
The Voting Rights Act has no such provision for a private right of action. Rather, the power rests in the Attorney General himself or herself to institute proceedings to enforce the guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment and the VRA’s other statutory provisions. Thus, absent a committed Attorney General, and with a conservative judiciary, progress within this domain can vanish with ease and without recourse by private parties.
Essential to democracy is the right of political participation. As over 62 million Americans are reminded, sometimes this yields bad results. However, it is the best system that we have, and preserving the franchise is fundamental to the democracy for which our nation is known (for now). Americans require an Attorney General committed to the Constitution and to enforcing basic rights, not undermining them. Jeff Sessions is not that person. It is incumbent upon the United States Senate to recognize that and to vote against him accordingly.