Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, struggled on Tuesday to explain why he had listed multiple civil rights cases as among his ten most important, when his role in them had been minimal.
During a confirmation hearing for the prospective attorney general, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) asked Sessions about a questionnaire he had filed with the Judiciary Committee, in which he had been asked to identify the ten “most significant litigated matters which you personally handled.” Four of those cases were voting rights and desegregation cases. But the three attorneys who actually oversaw those cases said in a Washington Post op-ed last week that Sessions played little to no role in any of those cases.
Following the exchange with Franken, two of those attorneys told ThinkProgress that Sessions had not been truthful.
“Now you originally said that you personally handled three of these cases, but these lawyers say that you had no substantive involvement,” Franken told his colleague, before asking if they were distorting his record.
“ Yes,” Sessions responded, noting that Gerry Hebert, one of those lawyers, had previously praised him for supporting the civil rights prosecutions and for providing office space. “I signed the complaints that he brought; and as you know, may know, Senator Franken, when a lawyer signs a complaint, he’s required to affirm that he believes in that complaint, and supports that complaint, and supports that legal action, which I did. We sued.”
Sessions then observed that he did not know one of the attorneys, Joe D. Rich. Rich, now with the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights, said in an interview that this was precisely the problem with Sessions’ claims.
“I didn’t meet him and there was no time at all that he had any input on the case when I was working on it. Without knowing for sure, I can bet almost assuredly that he did not work on the case, because US attorneys did not work on civil rights cases, especially school desegregation cases,” Rich told ThinkProgress.
Rich noted that Sessions had later filed an addendum to his questionnaire, saying that “like most U.S. Attorneys in the nation with non-criminal civil rights cases,” his role was to “provide support for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, attorneys,” and that he “reviewed, supported and co-signed complaints, motions, and other pleadings and briefs that were filed during my tenure as U.S. Attorney. I provided assistance and guidance to the Civil Rights Division attorneys, had an open-door policy with them, and cooperated with them on these cases.”
“Now that’s closer to the truth,” Rich said. “But also not truth. He never provided any advice or guidance to me. His name wasn’t even on the brief that I filed in 1985, the brief that was related to the decision he was claiming credit for in 1986.”
In a later exchange during the Tuesday hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) noted that addendum — which Sessions said he thinks is truthful — and concluded that “there is no question” that Sessions has been “forthright with this committee.”
Cruz also criticized Franken for his line of questioning. “It is unfortunate to see members of this body impugn the integrity of a fellow senator with whom we have served for years,” Cruz said. The Texas Republican blasted Hebert for “making false charges” against Sessions in 1986 that he later was “forced to recant.”
Hebert, now at the Campaign Legal Center, told ThinkProgress that Cruz misrepresented what happened. After Hebert testified about Sessions’ involvement in a particular case, he and his supervisor “pulled all the records of all the cases” and discovered it had in fact been Sessions’ predecessor.
“We immediately — that day — prepared affidavits to the Senate, saying it wasn’t Sessions,” said Hebert. “But I said in my statement: ‘I stand by all of my other testimony.’” Cruz, he explained, “cherry-picked this one thing we admitted was in error and was corrected before the Senate voted.”
Hebert said that Sessions had misrepresented his own civil rights record. “He also continues to portray himself as a pro-civil rights lawyer in the 1980s. He was anything but,” said Hebert. “In fact the cases he claimed today to have supported, the Dallas County voting case, the Maringo County voting case — he never signed any papers in those cases, like he claimed to Senator Franken.”
“In fact, he explained to me that he disagreed with the government’s theory in those cases and said they lacked merit. He didn’t support those cases by reading cases or backing briefs,” Hebert added.
And Rich also insisted to ThinkProgress that Sessions had misrepresented his record.
“It seems like, if you’re nominated to be a cabinet member, particularly the Attorney General, you ought to be telling the true story,” Rich said. “That’s why we wrote the op-ed — this was not a true statement. I think he’s trying to paint a picture that he was a vigorous enforcer of the civil rights laws by saying this, and that’s not true. At the same time, he didn’t try to interfere, he didn’t try to stop us. But that he’s trying to claim something he didn’t do is a problem in my eyes.”
Franken noted the contradiction in the latter part of his exchange with Sessions. “One of the cases you listed was a case Mr. Rich handled so if you don’t know him it’s hard for me to believe that you personally handled it,” the Minnesota Democrat observed.
Sessions said he had been “supportive” in the cases, but added that it was “30 years ago — and my memory was of this nature and my memory was my support for those cases.”
“It tells me that he really hasn’t changed that much,” Hebert concluded. “Given his record, he’s probably worse now than he was in 1986, because he’s been given numerous opportunities in the US Senate to stand for civil rights, not against them. And at every turn he’s opposed civil rights.”
This post has been updated to include the the interview with Gerry Hebert.