Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ robust response to deadly spasms of violence by white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va. should not surprise his critics.
Where civil rights are concerned, Sessions is routinely cast by detractors as indifferent to the interests of minority groups. Accusations of racism have dogged Sessions throughout his career, and torpedoed his nomination to the federal bench in 1986. Those assertions appeared once again in the aftermath of this weekend’s deadly white supremacist attack, which left one dead and several injured.
Despite his immediate and repeated commitments of federal aid to the ensuing investigation, journalists and commentators noted Sessions supposed equivocations on hate crimes and civil rights issues.
“It says something when Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions says something the president can’t,” Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart said Sunday on Joy Reid’s MSNBC program.
The New York Times also invoked the 1986 allegations in its report on the AG’s response to Saturday’s attack. The Times further claimed that his characterization of the attack as “domestic terrorism” was “largely symbolic,” despite the fact that a definition of the same is clearly provided for under federal law.
It is certainly true that Sessions has generally been ambivalent about expanding federal anti-discrimination laws. He voted against the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which augmented the 1969 hate crimes law to include violence against LGBT individuals. During his tenure as attorney general, the Justice Department reversed course in litigation concerning Texas’ voter ID law, repeatedly stricken by federal courts which concluded the legislation was discriminatory. The Department also argued in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not protect LGBT workers (though that position is more or less approximate to the Obama-era DOJ’s position.)
Though he has been skeptical about expanding civil rights laws, he has consistently and vigorously enforced existing anti-discrimination laws as a federal prosecutor, particularly in the hate crimes area. His response to Saturday’s attack is in keeping with a long history of prosecuting white supremacists and hate groups, and generally conform to his law and order ideology.
Under Sessions’ leadership, DOJ has brought half a dozen hate crimes indictments since March. These cases include arson of a mosque in Texas, threats made to a Jewish community center in Florida, and a racially motivated assault in Pennsylvania.
The AG pledged as much during remarks at a hate crimes summit in June, where he promised to make hate crimes prosecutions part of his broader commitment to fighting violent crime, and solicited feedback on community challenges from attendees.
“As long as I am attorney general, the Department of Justice will continue to protect the civil rights of all Americans — and we will not tolerate the targeting of any community in our country,” he said.
“I have directed all our federal prosecutors to make fighting violent crime a top priority — and you can be sure that this includes hate crimes,” he added. “We will demand and expect results.”
To this end, he also ordered the creation of a hate crimes working group as part of his Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.
Strategies of this nature were typical of his career as U.S. attorney in Alabama, where he desegregated public schools and assisted in the prosecution of members of the Ku Klux Klan.
One such case involved Henry Francis Hays, a klansman who brutally murdered a black teenager named Michael Donald in 1981. Hays was eventually convicted in a state court of the murder, though Sessions’ office substantively participated in the investigation. Later as Alabama Attorney General, he handled Hays’ appeals, and helped ensure he was eventually executed for the crime.
Hays’ conviction played a critical role in securing a $7 million civil judgement against the United Klans of America, effectively bankrupting one the country’s largest organized hate fronts. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s legal director, Richard Cohen, said Sessions was helpful in developing evidence and arranging the testimony of key witnesses. This notwithstanding, Cohen opposed Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general.
Though Sessions himself did not prosecute Hays’ case, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Willie J. Huntley Jr. told The Daily Caller News Foundation that Sessions recognized Hays faced stiffer penalties in an Alabama state court as opposed to a federal court, prompting him to cede the case to the Mobile County district attorney. Huntley worked for Sessions from 1987 to 1991.
“He opted for the state court because they could secure a more severe penalty,” Huntley told TheDCNF.
He further explained Sessions’ office prioritized the investigation and prosecution of racially motivated crimes. Such instances include three prosecutions for excessive use of force against officers in the Mobile and Selma police departments. Each of these cases involved white officers brutalizing black citizens.
“They were at the top of the priority list,” Huntley said.
Washington-based investigators dispatched to Mobile for civil rights investigations routinely received Sessions’ welcome and cooperation, according to Huntley.
“They had complete and total cooperation from our office in those cases,” he said.
That account is corroborated by DOJ Civil Rights Division lawyers who had occasion to visit Sessions during that time.
“Not all southern United States attorneys welcomed civil-rights division attorneys into their districts back then,” said Barry Kowalski, who worked in DOJ’s civil rights unit. “[Sessions] did, he cooperated with us completely.”
This lengthy history corresponds to Sessions’ law and order theorizing. As BuzzFeed News’ Dominic Holden noted, the AG is zealous is his enforcement of the law and genuinely believes social disruption is best ameliorated through energetic prosecution. Hate crimes are no exception.
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