February 07, 2018

Senator Warren Delivers Floor Speech to Mark One Year of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General

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

Video available here (YouTube)

Washington, DC ­- United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) today delivered a floor speech to mark one year of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.  Sharply criticizing Attorney General Sessions' record on civil rights, criminal justice, and immigration, Senator Warren outlined how the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions' leadership has failed in its mission to promote justice for all Americans.

The full text of her remarks is available below.

Remarks by Senator Elizabeth Warren
February 7, 2018

Thank you Mr. President.

One year ago today, I came to the Senate floor to oppose the nomination of Jeff Sessions 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, 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.

That night, 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 the federal judgeship for which he had been nominated back in the 1980s. And I hope that by reminding the Senate of its bipartisan rejection of Sessions in the 1980s, that letter might help us to once again come together in a bipartisan way to say that this kind of bigotry shouldn't be allowed anywhere in our criminal justice system.

That was my plan. But for reading those words-the words of an icon of the civil rights movement-I was booted 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-a man deemed too racist to hold a federal court judgeship in 1986-nope, they confirmed him to lead the agency charged with defending justice for all Americans.

Now it's been one year since the Republican-controlled Senate made Jeff Sessions the Attorney General of the United States. I wish I could say that I was wrong. I actually really do.  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. Instead, Sessions has led the Department in the opposite direction.

So, let's make a list, and start with voting.

In 1986, Mrs. King warned us that Sessions had used the awesome power of his office as an Alabama prosecutor to chill the free exercise of the vote by African Americans. As Attorney General, he's continued that crusade, targeting not only African Americans, but Latinos, the elderly, veterans and other marginalized groups.

Only weeks after Sessions took the reins, the Justice Department abandoned its legal challenge of a Texas voter ID law that intentionally discriminated against voters of color. Later, the Department argued that it should be easier for states to strike eligible voters from their voting rolls-a proven way of preventing eligible citizens from voting.

Sessions has eagerly embraced President Trump's make-believe, fact-free conspiracy theories about "voter fraud" - condoning the President's voter suppression commission and engaging in state-level inquiries into voter databases.

Next on the list:  defending all Americans-equal protection under the law.

In her letter, Coretta Scott King warned that Jeff Sessions would undermine equality under the law. And sure enough, when Jeff Sessions took over at the Justice Department, he immediately got to work reversing the agency's prior efforts to defend laws and policies that protect Americans from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Sessions' Justice Department has rescinded guidance protecting transgender students and workers from illegal discrimination.  The same day that President Trump used Twitter to announce that he was banning transgender individuals from serving in the military, the Justice Department filed a legal brief reflecting Sessions' view that our great civil rights laws don't protect gay Americans from discrimination, despite rulings by other federal courts and guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reaching the opposite conclusion. And the Sessions Justice Department has gone out of its way to argue in the Supreme Court that business owners should be able to deny service to gay customers.

In 1986, Mrs. King wrote-quote "I do not believe Jeff Sessions possesses the requisite judgment, competence, and sensitivity to the rights guaranteed by the federal civil rights laws to qualify for appointment to the federal district court." It's clear that Sessions has not acquired those skills in the thirty-two years since Mrs. King issued her warning.

Third, criminal justice.

Jeff Sessions is using the monumental power of 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 the powerful and another ineffective, cruel system for everyone else. Coretta Scott King told us about Sessions' role in this broken system when she wrote that he "exhibited an eagerness to bring to trial and convict" black civil rights leaders "despite evidence clearly demonstrating their innocence of any wrongdoing." Meanwhile, he "ignored allegations of similar behavior by whites."

In recent years, we had made some progress away from that broken system - implementing proven reforms that make our communities safer. Jeff Sessions has worked with laser-like focus to reverse those gains.

Just last week, Sessions effectively closed an office within the Justice Department that helped make legal aid more accessible to people who don't have enough money to pay for a lawyer. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Under Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department killed off a reform initiative that allowed local police departments to voluntarily partner with the federal government to improve community policing.
  • The Justice Department has abandoned its longstanding efforts to hold local police forces accountable when they routinely and systemically violate the constitutional rights of American citizens.
  • Sessions ended the Department's Smart on Crime initiative, which allowed prosecutors to divert some low-level, non-violent offenders, into rehab programs this was a program that saved money, avoided incarceration, and improved safety in our communities and it improved the lives of these offenders and their families. Instead, Sessions instructed all prosecutors to bury even low-level, non-violent drug offenders under the most serious charges possible, guaranteeing the longest prison terms possible.
  • Sessions even rolled back efforts to take weapons of war off of our streets, lifting common-sense restrictions on the transfer of military-grade weapons to local police departments - weapons of war like grenade launchers and armored vehicles that belong on battlefields, not on the streets where our kids ride their bicycles and walk to school - weapons that even the Pentagon cannot justify handing over to local police.

And next, immigration.

As a Senator, Jeff Sessions was anti-immigration extremist who led multiple successful campaigns to defeat bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform. As a Senator, he urged deporting Dreamers who were brought to the United States as kids.

As the head of the Justice Department, he has continued his ugly, anti-immigrant rampage. He has zealously defended every illegal and immoral version of President Trump's Muslim ban.  He has used the Department to try to cut off aid to cities and states that prioritize keeping their communities safe over being a part of his national deportation force. And while it was Donald Trump who ordered it, Jeff Sessions himself announced the end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals-or DACA-program, subjecting 800,000 Dreamers to deportation.

So there it is:  Coretta Scott King's words about Jeff Sessions were true in 1986, they were true a year ago, and they remain true today.  On Jeff 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.

All of this - all of it - was predictable. All of this - all of it - was foreseeable. All of this - all of it - could have been avoided if just a few Republican Senators had stood up for fair and impartial justice. But they didn't. Not one, here we are.

And here's the ultimate irony: President Trump turned on his Attorney General.  Why?  Not over voting or equal rights or criminal justice or immigration.  Nope, the President turned on Sessions because Sessions formally recused himself from a law enforcement investigation into the President's ties to Russia. Sessions has groveled, but Donald Trump will never forgive the sin of failing to serve Donald Trump personally.

Jeff Sessions, President Trump, and this Republican 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. The American people are showing up - in the streets, in the airports, in the courtrooms, and even at the polls to hold this government accountable. And they will continue to show up - and to fight, day in and day out, to fight for fairness, for equality, for liberty and justice for all.

Republicans tried to silence Coretta Scott King for speaking the truth about Jeff Sessions.  They tried to silence me for reading Mrs. King's words on the Senate floor.  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.