Tuesday was the first day of testimony concerning Jeff Sessions’ nomination to serve as Attorney General of the United States. For over eight hours, Sessions answered questions about his prosecutorial and Senatorial record, as well as over controversial comments he has made, as Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sought to unearth if Sessions would be able to enforce laws that he actively opposed.
One of those laws is the standing Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which Sessions has called a “colossally erroneous” decision, and has repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to undermine through legislation. Sessions voted multiple times in support of fetal rights legislation, in support of a 20-week abortion ban, and in support of cutting funding to Planned Parenthood.
In his testimony, Sessions promised to uphold and protect a woman’s right to abortion, despite his strong opposition, though he failed to disavow his endorsement from Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion extremist group that has intimidated and threatened the lives of countless abortion providers.
Sessions opposition to the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act was a major source of contention between Republican and Democratic members of the Committee throughout the hearing, at times taking on the tone of a partisan debate over the merits of individual measures in the bill.
The 2013 re-authorization in question sought to expand protections to all survivors, including Native American women and college students, and moved to provide access to services regardless of a survivor’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or immigration status. The Department of Justice has sole jurisdiction over enforcing federal statutes criminalizing violence against women and other forms of gender-based violence.
One of the most discussed “controversial additions” Tuesday was the extension of Tribal authority to allow Tribal courts to prosecute non-Tribal sexual predators who commit violence against American Indian women. 80 percent of sexual assaults on reservations are committed by non-Tribal men intruding on the land, who act with virtual impunity, since federal authorities frequently decline to follow through with prosecutions of rape cases. Instead of recognizing the vulnerability of these women, Sessions and other Republicans successfully stipulated in the re-authorization that Tribal courts only have the authority to prosecute non-Tribal sexual offenders who have pre-existing intimate relationships with the women they abused, purposely excluding from prosecution unknown predators who specifically seek out reservations to commit their crimes. Sessions inability to recognize women’s vulnerability to sexual violence is troubling.
After tapes were released of then-Presidential nominee Donald Trump gloating that he grabs women by the genitals without their consent, Sessions notoriously remarked that he didn’t believe that act of violence legally constituted as sexual assault, further concerning survivors and their advocates. Just Monday, a group of sexual assault survivors went to Jeff Sessions Capitol Hill Senate Office to present him with the Department of Justice’s definition of sexual assault. In his hearing, Sessions admitted that the act did constitute as sexual assault, adding, if indeed it was done without consent.
A major source of contention throughout the hearing surrounded Sessions claims that he personally litigated several civil rights cases, specifically three voting rights and one school desegregation case. After he listed those cases as four of the ten most significant of his career, a group of former attorneys for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post stating, “We can state categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of them.”
They continued, “Sessions has not worked to protect civil rights. He worked against civil rights at every turn. Sessions knows that his real record on race and civil rights is harmful to his chances for confirmation. So he has made up a fake one.” Sessions admitted in a tense exchange with Senator Al Franken (MN-D) that he embellished his record on integration while serving as the US Attorney in Southern Alabama.
Sessions comment once calling the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” was another major source of contention during the first day of his hearing. Sessions argued that he understands the impact that voter suppression has had on black communities, yet was accused by Gerry Herbert, one of the aforementioned attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, of prosecuting black citizens on phony charges of voter fraud, supporting discriminatory voter ID laws and celebrating when the Voting Rights Act was heavily deconstructed following the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. Sessions argued during his testimony that while he did call the Act irrelevant, he also admits it holds a “factual basis” and is “justified,” pointing to his vote to reauthorize it in 2006.
Today the hearing will continue with testimony from witnesses.
Media Resources: Washington Post 1/3/17; Politifact 1/10/17; Feminist Majority Foundation Letter on Jeff Sessions 1/6/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 1/9/17, 6/24/17.