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Jeff Sessions's year at DOJ is a year the civil rights movement will never get back

Jeff Sessions's year at DOJ is a year the civil rights movement will never get back
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The stated mission of the Justice Department is “to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”  However, since taking the helm of the Justice Department one year ago Friday, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMcCabe to sue Trump admin for defamation, wrongful termination Trump pressed Sessions to fire FBI agents who sent anti-Trump texts: report The Hill's Morning Report: Inside the Comey memos MORE has proven incredibly hostile on some of the most important and critical civil rights matters of our time.

As the leader of the most important law enforcement agency in the country, he has used his first year in the role to gut the mission of the agency and to make clear his disdain for victims of discrimination.  Without immediate Congressional oversight, we run the risk that Attorney General Sessions will cause irreparable damage to an agency tasked with protecting the rights of the most vulnerable Americans.  

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In the area of voting rights, the Justice Department under Sessions has not filed a single new action seeking to protect the voting rights of minority voters. My organization, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, staffed with a fraction of the attorneys serving under Sessions at DOJ, has filed seven voting rights cases in states including North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona in the same period. 

Equally disturbing, the Sessions DOJ reversed its position in two significant voting rights cases — the Texas Photo ID case and the Ohio voter purge case presently before the Supreme Court — ignoring the facts in these cases in favor of taking a politicized view of the law that fully departs from positions taken during the life of these cases.  Sadly, these u-turns have occurred during the 60th anniversary year of DOJ’s Division of Civil Rights.   

Sessions also sought to muzzle the Department by announcing shortly after his swearing in that the federal government would “pull back” on its work repairing broken police departments across the country.  The move, Sessions shockingly stated, was not “wrong or mean or insensitive to civil rights or human rights.” Thankfully, a federal judge in Maryland approved DOJ’s consent decree with the City of Baltimore in a decision cheered by the city’s mayor and police commission. Yet despite needed reform in cities like Chicago and Charleston, S.C., the federal government has abdicated its role in bringing about any potential improvements. Instead, states like California are stepping up to oversee needed reforms to local police departments, without the support and in-house expertise of the Justice Department.

On the issue of legal representation for poor defendants, Sessions has made clear that protecting the constitutional rights of the indigent is not a priority.  By taking the extraordinary step of shuttering the Office for Access to Justice, Sessions made clear that the Justice Department is not willing to take affirmative steps to ensure that poor people have access to counsel and to ensure that poor people are not incarcerated merely because of their inability to pay fines and fees. 

Sessions has taken these extraordinary steps despite growing bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform and a growing consensus that more must be done to fix the breaks in our criminal justice system. These issues are particularly troubling as the criminalization of poverty disproportionately harms African Americans, Latinos and other historically marginalized groups across the country.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, Sessions vowed to enforce hate crimes laws and attempted to remake himself as a civil rights champion. He told senators:

“I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters.”  

Sessions’s words ring hollow.  Under Sessions, the agency has shifted resources away from protecting victims of discrimination and is instead reigniting the War on Drugs, attacking affirmative action policies at colleges and universities, and turning a blind eye to crisis-level issues such as the police shooting crisis which continues to grip the nation.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s ushered in significant reforms with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, and other landmark laws required to combat discrimination against African Americans on a national scale.  Discrimination against racial minorities remains a stark problem today, but not in Attorney General Sessions’s Justice Department.  Yet while corrupt police departments perpetuate the vicious cycle of targeting young black men, voting rights violations deny racial minorities the right to vote, targeted individuals remain the focus of hate-fueled crimes, and the president uses hateful language himself to demonize virtually every underrepresented class of citizens, the attorney general sits quietly.

Jeff Sessions was an outspoken senator from Alabama for 20 years and an overzealous prosecutor as U.S. attorney before that. As attorney general, he has demonstrated his hostility and opposition to enforcing federal civil rights laws and his unwillingness to use the powers of the office to confront some of the most pressing civil rights crises we face today. As Attorney General Sessions moves into his second year in this critical role, it is imperative that Congress use its powers to provide oversight, ensure accountability and promote transparency around the way in which Sessions has gutted the mission of the agency.

Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.