Law Professors’ Letter Opposes Sessions

By: Kokomo Metzger, 1L
Staff Writer

One of President Trump’s more hotly debated cabinet appointees is Jeff Sessions, the Republican junior U.S. Senator from Alabama, for Attorney General. Before his recent hearing and Senate

confirmation, Sessions had already been before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a federal judgeship in 1986. Back then, the committee killed his chances before even reaching the Senate floor for a vote due to Sessions’ “gross insensitivity to racial issues.” During the 1986 hearing, former colleagues testified that Sessions used derogatory terms to describe African Americans and made jokes concerning the KKK, saying the group was “okay until he learned that they smoked marijuana.” As a result, the Republican-controlled committee blocked his nomination despite Sessions’ denial: “I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks.”

Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions at a rally

The Senate recently confirmed Sessions, Trump’s pick for Attorney General. | Source: http://www.thenewamericana.com

Nearly 31 years later, Trump tapped Sessions to be the head of the justice department—the U.S. Government’s chief lawyer and law enforcement officer. In response to Trump’s pick, a group of law professors from various law schools wrote a letter asking the Senate to reject  the appointment of Sessions to Attorney General. The letter, signed by 1,424 law professors from 180 law schools in 49 states, asks the Senate Judiciary Committee to deny Sessions because “Nothing in Senator Sessions’ public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge.”

Two professors at Washington and Lee University’s School of Law, Professor J.D. King and Dean Johanna Bond, were instrumental in writing the letter and organizing for the signature of hundreds of law professors from across the country. Ultimately, over ten W&L law professors signed the letter to oppose Sessions for Attorney General.

“As soon as we circulated it to a few colleagues,” Professor King stated, “the letter took on a momentum of its own, and we had almost 200 signatures within 3 hours. I was surprised not only by the eagerness of people to sign the letter but also the willingness of people to donate money so we could run the letter as an ad in hometown newspapers of senators who would be voting on the nomination.”

Why is Sessions the focus of such vocal dissent in the legal community? As law professors, King said, “We’ve got a special obligation to speak out about issues of public importance that deal with the law.” In the past,  Sessions’ failure to exhibit appropriate sensitivity to civil rights cost him a federal judgeship. The professors who signed the letter find Sessions’ record on civil rights extremely relevant.

Recently, President Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates for refusing to enforce a travel ban with parts she understood to be unconstitutional. This was generally interpreted as an indication of  how the Trump Administration would deal with dissent. In 2015, when Yates was before the Senate Judiciary Committee for her confirmation hearing, then Senator Sessions asked her if she had what it

took to say no to enforcing illegal or unconstitutional laws. Her answer, in short, was a resounding yes. Yates’ recent refusal to enforce what she understood to be an unconstitutional ban on incoming populations confirms the truth of her response.

Would Sessions have what it takes to tell the Trump Administration “No,” especially in the wake of Yates’ dismissal? “His record is what you have to look at, and what we haven’t seen is any sort of courageous act in defense of civil rights. It doesn’t look like it from his record . . . [and recently] there have been some real concerns about how independent he will be from this administration. The oath . . . is to the Constitution. I have real doubts as to whether Jeff Sessions would do what [Sally Yates] did,” cautions Professor King. There are also concerns among the signers about ties and potential conflicts of interest between Senator Sessions and President Trump. For King, independence of the Attorney General is infinitely more important than other Cabinet positions.

Sessions’ supporters argue he has prosecuted cases in support of the vulnerable populations that now decry him, yet the signers of the letter feel these are instances of him merely doing his job and that there are no exceptional circumstances where he has gone out on a limb to protect special classes of people or enforce civil rights.

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