Attorney General Sessions Must be Watched Closely for Biased Conduct

Posted Feb. 15, 2017

MP3 Interview with Allegra Chapman, director of voting and elections with Common Cause, conducted by Scott Harris

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By a 52 to 47 vote on Feb. 8, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was confirmed by his Senate colleagues to become the U.S. attorney general. His narrow victory underscored the bitter controversy surrounding Sessions and the many charges against him for racial bias in speech and action – as well as holding homophobic views. Many civil rights and social justice groups who had opposed his nomination expressed dismay that Sessions will now become the nation's top law enforcement official, despite his long history of opposing civil rights and voting rights legislation, as well as measures advocating equal treatment of all Americans regardless of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

The bitterness of the fight was in full view when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky used an arcane Senate rule to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, when she attempted to read into the record a 1986 letter from the late Coretta Scott King, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, who had written to the senators urging them to reject the nomination of Sessions for a federal judgeship at the time, which they did.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Allegra Chapman, director of voting and elections with the national group Common Cause. Here, she discusses her group's response to the Senate confirmation of Jeff Sessions, the areas of greatest concern – and plans to ensure as attorney general is held accountable for any conduct determined to be biased or unjust. [Rush transcript.]

ALLEGRA CHAPMAN: So what we're most concerned with is that Jeff Sessions would just not be enforcing the remainder of the Voting Rights Act as it exists today. So, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act exists today and it's a really strong tool in order to ensure that laws that states try to pass not be permitted to stay on the books if they are in fact discriminatory, if they have a discriminatory impact. For Obama's Department of Justice, we saw them really pursue a lot of litigation or get involved in some cases in which discrimination when it comes to voting, was on the block. We are concerned that Jeff Sessions, especially considering everything that he said about the Voting Rights Act, would either oppose those really strong briefs from some cases, or just fail to pursue these sorts of lawsuits altogether. And that has a real impact for people on the ground. Some of these discriminatory laws, like photo ID laws, can affect hundreds of thousands of people in each state. For example in Texas, a court found a photo ID law was going to prevent 600,000 people from voting. In Wisconsin, a photo ID law, one of the courts said, could have impacted around 300,000 people. So, these are the kinds of things. They're not just theoretical issues. I think they really have impact on the ground and can ultimately prevent people from really participating in our democracy. I think this is a time right now where we're really calling more on people to really show up, vote, to be a part of their community, to participate. And when we see folks within the government trying to curb that and prevent that from happening, that's a real problem. And it's also an illegal one.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Allegra, Donald Trump, during his election campaign and since he's been sworn into office, has often talked about what he claims are instances of massive voter fraud with millions of illegal aliens voting and other ancillary charges that are unsupported by fact. Many of us call that a lie. At any rate, Donald Trump is making these claims. Are you concerned that this narrative will feed into more draconian voter suppression laws across the country – and specifically in those states governed by Republican governors and legislatures.

ALLEGRA CHAPMAN: Yeah, you bet I'm concerned. Many of us are concerned. And I'm glad to hear you and other reporters and journalists call this out for what it is, it is in fact a lie. You know there's just no proof that any of this has happened. In fact, a number of studies have been conducted over the years with respect to election issues and whether or not illegal voting takes place. Both the Department of Justice under George W. Bush in addition to the Department of Justice under Obama, plus a handful of other experts have studied have the issue. They have looked at the details of elections; they have studied ballots. And they can confirm resoundingly that the kind of illegalities that this sort of widespread voter fraud simply does not exist.

And yet, Trump said to a number of other people who are either trying to push his agenda or who are working for him continues to sound off this message.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are you optimistic at all that Jeff Session will be more careful about the appearance of bias toward racial minorities and the LGBTQ community because of the scrutiny he received in the Senate confirmation hearings?

ALLEGRA CHAPMAN: You know, I think that's really an excellent question. All I can say is, I hope so. Common Cause has really engaged our membership on this issue. They have been following Jeff Sessions. They have been looking into his history even though he is now head of the Department of Justice, despite our best efforts. You know, we've called on our citizenry to continue to sort of watch Sessions and make sure that he abides by promises that he made to uphold the law, to enforce the law for all. And so we do have a "Watch Sessions" campaign for our membership. And I think, really, that's what people can and should be doing now. The way that you hold power accountable, the way that you hold your representatives accountable, or even those who are appointed to executive agencies, is by being the eyes and ears. And if we see that Jeff Sessions is not abiding by what is required of him by the job description, then this is something that we need the media to continue to kind of expound on. Ultimately, at the end of the day, things change during elections. But, we do want to stay vigilant.

Learn more about voting and elections with Common Cause at CommonCause.org and their new "Sessions Watch" webpage.

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