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Jeff Sessions perverts American justice

Elizabeth Warren

One year ago, I went to the Senate floor to oppose the nomination of Jeff Sessions — a man deemed too racist to be a federal judge in the 1980s — to lead the Department of Justice. The Justice Department is charged with defending our laws and standing up for all people, regardless of color, sex, sexual orientation, religion or ability. That night on the Senate floor, I described Jeff Sessions’ appalling record on nearly every major national issue handled by the Justice Department — including civil rights, immigration, and criminal justice reform. I also read a letter that Coretta Scott King sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 opposing Sessions’ nomination to serve as a federal judge.

Mrs. King wrote a vivid account of how Jeff Sessions, as a U.S. Attorney in the 1980s, had “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” That letter had been a part of the Senate Judiciary Committee records for more than 30 years. It helped sink the nomination of Jeff Sessions for a federal judgeship in the 1980s. I hoped that by reminding the Senate of its bipartisan rejection of Sessions back then, we could once again come together in a bipartisan way to say that that kind of bigotry should not be allowed anywhere in our criminal justice system.

That was my plan. But for reading the words of an icon of the civil rights movement, I was kicked off of the Senate floor. Every one of my Republican colleagues present that night voted to shut me up for reading Mrs. King’s words. And the next day, every single Republican voted to confirm Jeff Sessions as America’s attorney general.

It’s been one year since the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed Jeff Sessions to lead the Justice Department. I wish I could say that I was wrong about him. But Coretta Scott King’s warnings ring even louder today than they did in 1986.

On issue after issue, Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department has failed in its mission to promote justice for all Americans.

In 1986, Mrs. King warned that Sessions had used the power of his office as an Alabama prosecutor to chill the free exercise of the vote by African Americans. As attorney general, Sessions has continued that crusade, targeting not only African Americans, but Latinos, the elderly, veterans and other marginalized groups. Sessions eagerly embraced President Trump’s voter suppression commission, has defended state-level efforts to purge voting rolls, and has engaged in state-level inquiries into voter databases.

Jeff Sessions is also using his office to invert our criminal justice system. For too long in America, we’ve had a dual justice system — one sympathetic, soft-on-crime system for the rich and powerful and another ineffective, cruel system for everyone else. In her 1986 letter, Mrs. King wrote about Sessions’ role in this broken system, explaining that Sessions “exhibited an eagerness to bring to trial and convict” black civil rights leaders “despite evidence clearly demonstrating their innocence of any wrongdoing.” Meanwhile, Sessions “ignored allegations of similar behavior by whites.” As Attorney General, Sessions has halted reforms to make local police departments more accountable, effectively closed an office that helped provide legal assistance available to people who cannot afford lawyers and has demanded that prosecutors throw the book at low-level, non-violent offenders.

Coretta Scott King’s words about Jeff Sessions were true in 1986, they were true a year ago and they remain true today. On Sessions’ watch, the Justice Department has promoted voter suppression. On his watch, the Justice Department has endorsed discrimination. On his watch, the Justice Department has reversed efforts to reform our broken criminal justice system. And on his watch, the Justice Department has led an all-out, bigotry-fueled attack on immigrants and refugees.

Jeff Sessions, President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress seem to think they can stoke the fires of hatred and division without being consumed by them. And maybe they can, for a time. But people are resisting and persisting.

States and cities are stepping up to defend civil rights under assault by the federal government. People are showing up in the streets, in the airports, in the courtrooms, and even at the polls to hold this government accountable. And we will continue to show up to fight for fairness, for equality, for liberty and justice for all.

Republicans tried to silence Coretta Scott King for speaking the truth in 1986. They tried to silence me for reading Mrs. King’s words on the Senate floor in 2017. They’ve tried to silence all of us from speaking out. But instead of shutting us up, they’ve made us louder.

Warn us. Give us explanations. Nevertheless, we will persist — and we will win.

Elected in 2012, Elizabeth Warren serves as U.S. senator from Massachusetts.