SMU law professors ask Senate to block Trump's pick for attorney general

Five professors at Southern Methodist University's law school have joined more than 1,300 legal academics across the country in urging the Senate to reject Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general.

By Julieta Chiquillo
The Dallas Morning News

Five professors at Southern Methodist University's law school have joined more than 1,300 legal academics across the country in urging the Senate to reject Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general.

President-elect Donald Trump nominated Sessions in November for the post that would make him the chief enforcer of the nation's laws. He was the first senator to endorse Trump during the presidential campaign.

Like other Trump nominations, this one is controversial. Critics of the longtime senator resurrected memories of his unsuccessful bid for a federal judgeship in 1986, when former colleagues testified that Sessions had made racist comments. Among them was a joke about members of the Ku Klux Klan, who Sessions said "were OK until I learned they smoked pot." He was also said to have called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union "un-American," though Sessions denied it.

Sessions has fought back accusations of racism. But the law professors' complaints about him extend far beyond the comments that came to light 30 years ago. 

In a letter addressed to Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel's lead Democrat, the legal scholars said they are convinced Sessions won't enforce U.S. laws fairly.

SMU Dedman School of Law faculty Joanna L. Grossman, Grant Hayden, Jeffrey D. Kahn, Natalie Nanasi and Jessica Dixon Weaver signed the letter, along with at least 24 professors from other Texas law schools.

Here's a breakdown of the grievances recorded in their letter:

"Some of us have concerns about his misguided prosecution of three civil rights activists for voter fraud in Alabama in 1985, and his consistent promotion of the myth of voter-impersonation fraud."

When he was U.S. attorney in Alabama, Sessions pushed a criminal case against three voter-registration activists who were accused of interfering with absentee ballots. One of them was a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr.  The activists said they were helping elderly and illiterate voters in rural areas, but Sessions explained that he was responding to fraud complaints made by black officeholders, The Washington Post reported.

A predominantly black jury quickly acquitted the activists. The case haunted Sessions during his federal judgeship confirmation hearing in 1986, as critics associated the prosecution of the activists with an attempt to suppress the black vote. 

Sessions' friends have jumped to defend him. Larry D. Thompson, a former U.S. deputy attorney general who is black, said in a letter to The New York Times that Sessions is "a good and decent man" and "does not have a racist bone in his body."

"Some of us have concerns about his support for building a wall along our country's southern border."

In an interview with far-right news outlet Breitbart, Sessions called Trump's proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border "essential" to fixing the problem of illegal immigration.

The senator has long opposed pathways to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants and Obama administration efforts to shield some of those immigrants from deportation. He wants  to promptly deport unaccompanied children who cross the border illegally because he thinks that not doing so encouraged them to come to the U.S. at record levels in 2014.

"He has a really draconian approach to dealing with children who are fleeing violence in Central America," said Nanasi, an SMU professor who specializes in humanitarian immigration law.

Sessions has also resisted the flow of Syrian refugees into the United States, linking them to future terrorism. More than one tenth of Syria's population has been wounded or killed since its civil war began in 2011, according to one report.

"Some of us have concerns about his robust support for regressive drug policies that have fueled mass incarceration."

In the 2000s, Sessions led efforts in the Senate to reduce the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences, which disproportionately affected blacks.

But his stance on marijuana has drawn criticism.  At a Senate hearing last April, he said "good people don't smoke marijuana," even as half of the states have legalized medical marijuana and eight have authorized recreational use. The head of a drug reform advocacy group called Sessions "a drug war dinosaur."

 In 2016, Sessions also opposed a bipartisan bill that would have given federal judges more discretion in sentencing some drug offenders. People concerned with mass incarceration point to mandatory minimum sentences as a source of the problem.

"Some of us have concerns about his questioning of the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change."

Sessions is a climate change skeptic. He has opposed federal efforts to regulate greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, calling it "plant food" that "doesn't harm anybody except that it might include temperature increases."

Not that he has much faith in climate models, despite the scientific community's consensus that man-made activity has led to global warming. He sowed doubt about climate models while quizzing the head of the Environmental Protection Agency during a hearing in 2015, The Washington Post reported. 

"Some of us have concerns about his repeated opposition to legislative efforts to promote the rights of women and members of the LGBTQ community."

In 2013, Sessions and other Republicans voted against the reauthorization of a federal law that targets violence against women. Three provisions became controversial: one that would award federal grants only to domestic violence organizations that didn't discriminate against lesbian, gay and transgender people; another that would increase protections for Native American women in reservations; and a third that would boost the number of visas given to unauthorized immigrants who survive abuse, The Atlantic reported. 

Sessions also criticized the Supreme Court's landmark decision to allow same-sex marriage, though he said his home state of Alabama will "ultimately have to follow the law."

Eight years ago, the senator unsuccessfully blocked legislation that broadened the definition of hate crimes to include attacks based on gender identity and sexual orientation. 

Nanasi, the SMU professor, said she was troubled by Sessions' response to the infamous Access Hollywood video from 2005 that showed Trump bragging about kissing and groping women. Trump said he could walk up to women and "grab them by the [expletive]."

Sessions told The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, that he wouldn't characterize the behavior Trump described as sexual assault. 

"I can't conceive how somebody might hear a comment like that and not hear and recognize that that's the definition of what sexual assault is," Nanasi said.

Sessions later said in a statement to The Washington Post that the magazine had misrepresented his views.

"Some of us share all of these concerns."

The list of law professors signing the letter against Sessions keeps growing. But a spokeswoman for the senator dismissed it.

"This is just business as usual for the same far-left academics who trot [out] letters opposing just about any conservative or Republican who's nominated to a key position by a Republican president," spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores wrote in an email. "Jeff Sessions enjoys wide support from law enforcement organizations to civil rights leaders to victims' rights organizations and many others."

Sessions counts with the support of more than 100 former U.S. attorneys, who also signed a letter. The list includes 11 Texans.

"In addition to bringing and supporting civil rights cases to fight against voter suppression and school segregation, Senator Sessions supported the investigation into the brutal murder of an African American teenager, Michael Donald," the letter reads. "His efforts, in coordination with state authorities, ensured that the perpetrator -- the son of the Alabama Klan's leader -- received a capital sentence."

Sessions' confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin Tuesday.

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