The confirmation hearings that will determine if the much maligned Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions will be our next Attorney General begin on Tuesday, where Sessions will face a jury of his peers in the Senate for a round of questioning that will last two days.
Sessions, who has been a member of the US Senate for two decades, was previously denied a federal judgeship because of his disastrous civil rights record while he served as district attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. During his 1986 confirmation hearing, he faced allegations that he had made several racist statements to his colleagues—including one comment where he managed to both jokingly praise the Ku Klux Klan and disparage marijuana users—and that he had attempted to prosecute civil rights leaders who helped elderly black citizens vote.
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If Sessions is confirmed now, advocates say it could threaten marijuana legalization, police reform, immigration reform, and voting rights. Indeed, we can look to Sessions' record to get a good idea of his policy: In the Senate, Sessions has voted against gay marriage, against restoring voting rights to people convicted of a felony, and in favor of upholding voter ID laws that effectively discriminate against trans people and poor people. Sessions also voted to increase penalties for drug offenses and, at a Senate drug hearing last April, he said, "Good people don't smoke marijuana."
Sessions has also been hostile to consent decrees—calling them "dangerous"—which have been used by the federal government to ensure police departments with a history of civil rights abuses implement reforms.
Last week, members of the NAACP staged a sit-in inside the senator's Mobile, Alabama office with the goal of getting Sessions to decline the nomination. Six people were arrested by the police for refusing to leave, including the NAACP president Cornell Brooks. Other advocacy groups are also making one last push to mobilize their supporters to contact their representatives in the Senate to oppose the nomination of Trump's most troubling pick.
The marijuana advocacy organization NORML coordinated a day of action against Sessions, asking people to call their representatives in the Senate on Monday. NORML says they have already sent 20,000 emails to senators in the lead up to today. Based on Sessions' record, the activist group says it's likely that the Republican could decide to enforce federal prohibition, in contrast to the Obama administration's recent hands-off policy. And so far, Sessions has made no effort to clarify where he stands on the issue.
Erik Altieri, the executive director of NORML, expects the question to come up in the hearing, and he hopes that the members of the Senate won't confirm Sessions if his cannabis policy isn't in line with the views of the American people. "We've asked our thousands of supporters to say that they don't believe Sessions should be approved for the position unless he can commit to respecting state marijuana laws," said Altieri. "Sessions has been an ardent opponent of any type of marijuana reform and a big supporter of prohibition. That obviously gives concern to 60 percent of Americans that support legalization, the eight states that have approved it, and over half the country with medical marijuana laws."
An Attorney General who is hostile to marijuana could swiftly halt any legalization efforts with a few strokes of a pen. "The easiest and most likely path they could take if they wanted to slow the whole thing down would be to issue letters, both to business operators and the governors of these states [that have legalized marijuana], and say that they will be enforcing federal law. Just those letters alone would have such a wide-ranging and chilling effect on the industry as it currently operates," Altieri explained. "It would basically leave all these states with legalized possession, but no above-ground way for consumers to purchase the product, especially in states that just approved legalization in November."
Along with the uncertain future of state cannabis legalization, many believe Sessions would also be inclined to roll back civil rights for undocumented immigrants and marginalized groups, especially Muslim Americans, who the incoming administration has singled out as a threat. But the ability for Senate Democrats to push back against Sessions' nomination may be limited, according to The Nation.
Sessions' record raises significant, serious questions about his hostility to civil rights.
The Democrats have claimed that the timeline to consider Sessions' nomination is being rushed by the Republican judiciary committee chair, Senator Chuck Grassley, in comparison to previous hearings. "The Senate had confirmed Lynch twice, including just five years before her nomination to become Attorney General. The Senate's last consideration of Senator Sessions as a nominee was to reject him, 30 years ago," they wrote in a memo. "If anything, the timeline to consider Senator Sessions' nomination should be twice as long—not half as long—as it was for Lynch's nomination."
Additionally, the opposition will only get to call four witnesses to testify about Sessions in the hearing. Among those testifying will be NAACP president Brooks, along with David Cole from the ACLU.
"The ACLU is nonpartisan, and as a matter of longstanding policy does not support or oppose nominees for federal office. As a result, the ACLU rarely testifies in confirmation hearings," the organization said in a press release. "However, the organization is taking the extraordinary step of testifying in this hearing because Sen. Sessions' record raises significant, serious questions about his hostility to civil rights and civil liberties. The ACLU believes he must satisfactorily answer questions on these issues before a confirmation vote proceeds."
And ultimately, the Democrat's strategy to block Sessions' nomination will depend on getting a handful of Republicans to join them, which seems unlikely. "If each member votes with his or her party, Sessions will pass the committee by a vote of eleven to nine," Time reported this morning. "And there are no signs that any Republicans will defect, either in the committee or on the Senate floor."