Jeff Sessions
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

As Martin just noted, Donald Trump’s transition team has now confirmed that the president-elect will nominate Sen. Jeff Sessions to be our next Attorney General. If you’d like to read a thorough run-down of the nominee’s history, I’d suggest taking a look at this article by Ryan Reilly. With that in mind, I’d like to talk about what this nomination means going forward. Sari Horwitz and Ellen Nakashima summed it up with this:

The appointment of Sessions is expected to bring sweeping change to the Justice Department as it operated under Loretta E. Lynch and her predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., who, when he was nominated to be the first black attorney general, pledged to make rebuilding the civil rights division his top priority.

Several former Justice officials predicted that Sessions would reverse the emphasis on civil rights and criminal-justice reform that Holder put in place.

A bit of history about the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department is in order.

The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division is the institution within the federal government responsible for enforcing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, religion, and national origin. The Division was established on December 9, 1957, by order of Attorney General William P. Rogers, after the Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the office of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, who has since then headed the division.

I started following this division’s work very closely back in 2010 when the new Republican majority in Congress set their sights on going after Attorney General Eric Holder.

When the Obama administration wakes up next month to a divided capital, no cabinet member will be facing a more miserable prospect of oversight hearings and subpoenas than Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Mr. Holder is a particularly juicy target because he presides over issues that have served as recurrent fodder for political controversy — including using the criminal justice system for terrorism cases, and federal enforcement of civil rights and immigration laws.

As Horowitz and Nakashima noted above, one of Holder’s top priorities was to restore the Civil Rights Division to its original purpose after it had been decimated by the Bush administration. Joseph Rich, chief of the voting section in the Civil Rights Division from 1999 to 2005, described what happened.

I spent more than 35 years in the department enforcing federal civil rights laws — particularly voting rights. Before leaving in 2005, I worked for attorneys general with dramatically different political philosophies — from John Mitchell to Ed Meese to Janet Reno. Regardless of the administration, the political appointees had respect for the experience and judgment of longtime civil servants.

Under the Bush administration, however, all that changed. Over the last six years, this Justice Department has ignored the advice of its staff and skewed aspects of law enforcement in ways that clearly were intended to influence the outcome of elections.

It has notably shirked its legal responsibility to protect voting rights. From 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters. U.S. attorneys were told instead to give priority to voter fraud cases, which, when coupled with the strong support for voter ID laws, indicated an intent to depress voter turnout in minority and poor communities.

One of the most noteworthy achievements of the Obama administration has been the degree to which it has accomplished Holder’s original priority of staffing this department with civil rights experts and restoring their work to the division’s original intent. As we’ve seen recently, that means that many of those civil servants have a difficult decision to make.

Now the government’s top civil rights attorneys face a choice: Fight for what they believe in under an administration that shows every indication of being hostile to their division’s mission, or quit.

One of the reasons I’m highlighting this recent history of the civil rights division is that I agree completely with what Jonathan Chait wrote about the signal being sent by Trump’s transition team with these announcements, particularly Sessions, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon.

His early staffing choices are redefining the boundaries of acceptable racial discourse in Republican politics…

The theme connecting Bannon’s ideology with Flynn and Sessions is an intensified and narrow nationalism. The Bannonites see a “real” America as under threat by demographic transformation, and the waves of immigrants eating away at its culture from below are in alliance with a global and disproportionately Jewish media and business elite from above. Their project is to preserve white Christian American identity, and wage a civilizational war against Islam in alliance with other white Christian powers, especially Russia.

According to Horowitz and Nakashima, Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley (chair of the Judiciary Committee) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are on board with accepting Sessions as our next Attorney General. If so, they lend their support to the ideology that is front and center with these Trump nominees.

UPDATE: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a statement about the nomination of Sessions to be Attorney General that targets these concerns explicitly. He says,

…I am very concerned about what he would do with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and what to hear what he has to say.

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