Before Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions can assume the role of U.S. attorney general, he’ll undergo two days of confirmation hearings in January with the Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s expected to be a tough job interview, due in part to allegations of racial bias that cost him a federal judgeship 30 years ago.
As background for the hearings, Sessions filled out a 33-page questionnaire, available online, about his career as an attorney in the 1980s and ’90s, in the office of the Southern District of Alabama and then as attorney general of Alabama. Asked to cite the 10 “most significant” cases he “personally handled,” the 69-year-old Republican cited five that involved litigation on behalf of African-Americans — four of which were civil rights cases.
William Yeomans, who worked on one of the cases with Sessions during his time in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division (1978 to 2005), said that’s no accident.
“I think it’s a clearly calculated move,” said Yeomans, now a professor at the American University Washington College of Law. “Obviously, he knows his record on race in general will be an area of attack.”
The cases Sessions noted range from school desegregation to the execution of a Ku Klux Klan member who lynched a black teenager. Among them is United States v. Marengo County Commission, a 1987 case that came about after a district court found that the structure of the Alabama county’s electoral system diluted the voting power of African-Americans and made electing their chosen candidates harder. The redistricting plan proposed by Sessions’ office was upheld by a federal judge on appeal.
In civil rights cases, however, assistant U.S. attorneys, like Sessions was at the time, are “fairly passive participant[s],” Yeomans said. Instead, attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division take the reins, meaning Sessions wouldn’t necessarily have been closely involved in the four civil rights cases he mentions.
“He didn’t argue the cases or anything,” Yeomans said. “He wasn’t the courtroom guy.” The questionnaire, however, noted Sessions didn’t need to be the “attorney of record.”
Sessions also dedicated two pages — more space than he gave to other cases — to explain his controversial and unsuccessful prosecution of three civil rights activists on allegations of voter fraud in the hotly contested 1984 Democratic primaries. Known as the “Marion Three,” named for a city in Alabama, the group included Albert Turner, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr. In the end, only 14 absentee ballots out of 17 million cast in the state were found to have been tampered with, and “The Marion Three” were acquitted after four hours in court.
Sessions, however, seemed to stress in the questionnaire that it was not his call to prosecute the Marion Three. He wrote that the Perry County Grand Jury — the majority of whom were African-American — instigated the initial probe into the voter fraud allegations during the 1982 local election and then submitted their findings to his office, requesting that Sessions commence a federal investigation. At first, Sessions said his office had declined to investigate further. But, he wrote in the questionnaire, after voter fraud allegations emerged two years later in connection with the Marion Three, he decided to pursue the charges.
The details of United States v. Albert Turner, Spencer Hogue Jr. and Evelyn Turner resurfaced in 1986 during Sessions’ confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship position. The case was presented alongside inflammatory statements that Sessions had allegedly made in the past as evidence that he harbored racial bias and ultimately disqualified him from the position. Former colleagues, like federal prosecutor J. Gerald Herbert, testified that Sessions had described the NAACP as “un-American.” Thomas Figures, a black former U.S. assistant attorney who worked under Sessions in Mobile, Alabama, testified that he had insisted on calling him “boy” and warned him to be “careful about what you say to white folks.”