Amid LGBT advocates’ vehement opposition to his confirmation as U.S. attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) sought to allay concerns by saying he’d enforce laws protecting LGBT people, although other portions of his testimony raised eyebrows.
During the first part of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions — who has a long anti-LGBT record in the U.S. Senate — said he’s aware of concerns among LGBT people about his potential confirmation as attorney general and swore to ensure their protection under the law.
“I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community,” Sessions said. “I will ensure that the statutes protecting their civil rights and their safety are fully enforced.”
Donald Trump’s pick to become attorney general first came under questioning on LGBT issues from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee.
Feinstein raised a question about the ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of marriage equality and despite Sessions’s history of opposition to same-sex marriage, he declared he’d “follow that decision.”
“The Supreme Court has ruled on that,” Sessions said. “The dissents dissented vigorously. It was 5-4, and five justices on the Supreme Court, the majority of the court, has established the definition of marriage for the entire United States of America, and I will follow the decision.”
Sessions answered the question on marriage after he said he believes the Roe v. Wade was unconstitutional. Asked why he would “follow the law” for the marriage ruling when he believes Row was erroneous, Sessions denied any contradiction in his responses.
“I haven’t said that the woman’s right to choose or the Roe v. Wade and its progeny are not the law of the land, or not clear today,” Sessions said. “So, I would follow that law.”
But concerns about Sessions’s commitment to LGBT people came to the fore under questioning from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who asked Sessions about his vote against the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization in 2013.
“It is kind of frustrating to be accused of opposing VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act, when I voted for it in the past,” Sessions said. “There were specific add-on provisions in the bill that caused my concern and I think other people’s concern.”
The law contained a provision protecting LGBT people, undocumented immigrants and Native Americans on tribal lands. The Alabama Republican later clarified he opposed the law because he feared it would leave non-Native Americans open to prosecution under tribal law.
Sessions also revealed a predilection under questioning from Hatch about “religious freedom,” which is considered code among social conservatives to mean the ability to engage in anti-LGBT discrimination.
“There are situations in which I believe we can reach accommodations that would allow the religious beliefs of persons to be honored in some fashion as opposed to just dictating everything under a single provision or policy,” Sessions said. “I believe you are correct we should recognize religious freedom. It will be a very high priority of mine.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) aggressively challenged Sessions on his LGBT record, recalling remarks he delivered against hate crimes protections in which he said he’s “not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination.”
Sessions denied that characterization of his views is accurate, saying, “That does not sound like something I said or intend to say.” When Leahy insisted the quotation was accurate, Sessions replied, “I understand but I’ve seen things taken out of context and not given an accurate picture.”
“My view is and was a concern that it appeared that these cases were being prosecuted effectively in state courts where they would normally be expected to be prosecuted,” Sessions added. “I asked Attorney General Holder to list cases that he had that indicated they were not being properly prosecuted. I noted that Mr. Byrd was given the death penalty in Texas for his offense, and Mr. Shepard, there were two life sentences imposed as a result of the situation in his state, so the question simply was do we have a problem that requires an expansion of federal law into an area that the federal government has not been historically involved.”
In response, Leahy said a recent FBI report shows LGBT people are more often the victims of hate crimes than any other group, adding “We can study this forever, but that’s a pretty strong fact.” The Vermont Democrat recalled other statements Sessions made about the law — such as remarks it “cheapens the civil rights movement” — but Sessions said his opposition is moot.
“The law has been passed, the Congress has spoken, you can be sure I will enforce it,” Sessions said.
After Leahy’s questioning of Sessions on LGBT issues, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) quoted a letter from former U.S. solicitor general Ted Olson, the lead attorney in litigation that brought marriage equality to California and Virginia. The senator quoted Olson as saying he had “no reservations” about Sessions as attorney general.
“As a lawyer who devoted years of effort to litigating and vindicating the civil rights of our fellow gay, lesbian and transgender citizens, I recognize that people of good faith can disagree on legal issues” the letter says. “Such honest disagreements should not disqualify them from holding public office. In particular, I have no reservations about Sen. Sessions’ ability to handle these cases fairly, and in accordance with that law and to protect the civil rights of these and all of our citizens.”
With a question apparently aimed at Obama administration guidance asserting transgender students should be able to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) asked Sessions about the legal validity of guidance from the federal government. Without either Lee or Sessions explicitly mentioning the guidance specifically, the Alabama Republican expressed skepticism of such documents.
“I do think you raise a valid concern,” Sessions said. “A guidance document cannot amount to an amendment of the law. Bureaucrats do not have — that’s a pejorative term — but department and agency attorneys and members don’t have the ability to rewrite to make it say what they’d like it to say — and if we get away from that principle, we’ve eroded respect for law and the whole constitutional structure where Congress makes the laws, not the executive branch.”
Asked by Lee if he thinks courts should grant deference to guidance as they do under precedent to regulations, Sessions said he doesn’t know, but he thinks that “would be a pretty bold step” and he “would be dubious about it.”
At least five times during the hearing, protesters interrupted and halted the proceedings. One protester shouted “No Trump, No KKK, no fascist USA!” as Capitol Police pulled him out of the room. One protester shouted, “You are racist! You have ties to the KKK!” before starting a chant of “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” Another protester joined in with objections to Sessions’ views on immigration and chanted “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!”
Despite efforts from Sessions to allay concerns, LGBT advocates who oppose his confirmation were unmoved in their opposition to the nominee.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, expressed doubt Sessions would enforce laws to protect LGBT people given his opposition to the hate crimes law.
“Want to predict how vigorously an attorney general nominee will enforce federal hate crimes law?” Stacy said. “Look at his voting record on hate crimes legislation. Jeff Sessions didn’t only vote against the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes law, he led its opposition. We need an AG who takes these crimes seriously and pursues justice aggressively. We have serious doubts he can do so.”
Drew Courtney, spokesperson for People for the American Way, said Sessions’ assertions during his confirmation hearing he’s a champion of civil rights is “preposterous.”
“Jeff Sessions is once again painting himself as a civil rights leader — that’s preposterous,” Courtney said. “He can’t puff up his record by taking credit for the work of others. If anything, he should explain why he attempted to claim responsibility for cases he hardly touched.”
Sessions faces substantial opposition to his confirmation from Democrats, civil rights supporters and LGBT advocates, but he seems headed toward confirmation. Sessions only needs support from a majority of the senators in the Republican-controlled chamber. One of the more moderate Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), introduced him and declared support for him at the hearing. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has also expressed support for Sessions.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, said in a statement he opposes the nomination on the basis the Alabama Republican opposes laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people in the workforce.
“The Senate cannot confirm an attorney general nominee who doesn’t believe in civil rights to oversee our country’s civil rights protections – it’s worse than letting a fox guard the henhouse,” Maloney said. “Jeff Sessions thinks it’s OK to fire people like me or my husband or even refuse our kids childcare simply because our family looks a little bit different than most families – and we can’t allow someone with those beliefs to be our nation’s highest attorney, charged with protecting the rights of all Americans.”