WASHINGTON ― Common Cause announced on Thursday that it will oppose the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for attorney general. It is one of the few times in the liberal activist group’s 46-year history that it has come out against a presidential nominee.
Common Cause declared its opposition to Sessions over his hostility to voting rights laws while serving as a U.S. attorney, as Alabama state attorney general and as a four-term U.S. senator. The group is just the latest civil and voting rights organization to take a public stand against the senator’s nomination.
Sessions faced similar opposition when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to a U.S. district judgeship in 1986. His confirmation hearing highlighted Sessions’ record not only of opposing voting rights for minorities, but also of making racist statements and praising the Ku Klux Klan. Back then, his nomination didn’t make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sessions has called the Voting Rights Act “a piece of intrusive legislation” and applauded the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to gut the law’s key Section 5. As the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama in the 1980s, he led a failed prosecution of three civil rights activists who conducted a voter registration drive.
The Voting Rights Act is “one of the country’s most critical pieces of civil and voting rights legislation,” said Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn, yet Sessions would put it on the “chopping block.”
“His past statements and actions indicate that if confirmed as attorney general he would fail to fully uphold the Voting Rights Act as it stands today,” Hobert Flynn said.
The Department of Justice plays a critical role in enforcing the Voting Rights Act and other voting laws. Under the Obama administration, it successfully litigated cases against states that enacted restrictive voter identification laws and that adopted redistricting maps based on racial gerrymandering.
“We worry that going forward under Sessions, given his animosity towards this law, that he would pull briefs that the Department of Justice has previously filed in these cases and that they would fail to pursue this kind of litigation down the road,” said Allegra Chapman, Common Cause’s director for voting and elections.
The advocacy group cited Sessions’ stated positions on campaign finance as another reason to oppose his nomination. Like most other Republican senators, Sessions is an outspoken fan of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which opened the door to unlimited electoral spending by corporations and unions. He has also expressed support for eliminating or loosening campaign contribution limits.
Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, noted that the Justice Department is a key player in the enforcement of campaign finance and other anti-corruption statutes. He suggested that an Attorney General Sessions “wouldn’t do that job of vigorously investigating and enforcing potential violations” of such laws.
Failing to enforce anti-corruption laws, Ryan added, would appear to fly in the face of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
Common Cause’s decision to oppose Sessions represents a “very rare thing,” Hobert Flynn said. The group, which has over 700,000 members and operates chapters in 35 states, has spoken out against less than a dozen other presidential nominees in the past.
The most prominent of those were Reagan nominees Ed Meese for attorney general and Robert Bork for Supreme Court justice; John Tower, President George H.W. Bush’s nominee for defense secretary; and Hans von Spakovsky, President George W. Bush’s pick for a seat on the Federal Election Commission. Meese was confirmed, while Tower and Bork were not. Von Spakovsky received a recess appointment to the FEC, but ultimately withdrew his nomination to a full term.