As the Senate considers the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general, I reflect on my experience as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice from 1964 to 1986.
Working under attorneys general from Robert F. Kennedy to Ed Meese, I learned firsthand of the unique position they hold in our government. They exercise a degree of independence and power not found in other Cabinet positions. They are responsible for enforcing the civil rights laws that protect us from discrimination in voting, housing, lending, schools, public accommodations and employment.
They protect the right to be free from police brutality, to be fairly treated in mental institutions and prisons. They oversee the work of U.S. attorneys throughout the nation, the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the judges in immigration courts. Each Attorney General must establish enforcement policies and priorities.
The Senate Judiciary Committee should explore with Sessions what policies and priorities he will adopt for the Department’s Civil Rights Division. Will he support restoring the provisions of the Voting Rights Act which the Supreme Court severely weakened in 2013? Will he challenge voting practices that result in race-based deprivations of the right to vote, such as requirements that voters bring photo identification to the polls? Does he believe that the department should challenge the continued racial disparities that exist in educational opportunity in schools throughout the country?
The continued prevalence of housing segregation in the United States adversely affects our country in many ways. It leads to school segregation and denial of equal educational opportunity. It divides people by race. It accentuates disparities in law enforcement. It is economically unsound, because it skews the housing market. What priority will he give to combating practices that result in perpetuating housing segregation? How will he ensure that lending institutions conduct their business in a non-discriminatory manner?
The Civil Rights Division also enforces the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits local governments from adopting or enforcing land use regulations that discriminate against religious assemblies and institutions or which unjustifiably burden religious exercise. In recent years many of the Department of Justice’s land-use investigations involved mosques or Muslim schools. Will he continue enforcing the rights protected by land use act for all religions?
The Civil Rights Division enforces the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which Sessions voted against. In the first six years after 9/11, the Department of Justice investigated more than 800 incidents involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslims. Will Sessions commit to continuing the department’s high priority for investigating and prosecuting hate crimes?
The Civil Rights Division has recently investigated police practices in Ferguson, Baltimore, New Orleans and other cities. Its work has helped restore confidence in the fairness of law enforcement. Will the attorney general-designate continue to support such investigations and to enforce police department consent agreements to reform enforcement practices?
The American people have expressed a strong commitment to the cause of racial justice, through a series of civil rights laws. When the Senate exercises its duty to advise and consent, it must assure itself that Sessions will interpret and enforce these laws so as to promote that commitment.
Brian K. Landsberg is professor emeritus at the University of Pacific McGeorge School of Law. He can be reached at email@example.com.