February 07, 2017

Floor Speech in Opposition to Nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General

Mr. President, I rise in opposition to the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to be the next Attorney General of the United States and to head the U.S. Department of Justice.

I have had the privilege to serve with Senator Sessions in the U.S. Senate for nearly a decade. I have served on several committees with him, including the years that I was on the Judiciary Committee. I no longer serve on that committee, but I served there with Senator Sessions.

I was listening to Senator Klobuchar's explanations of her concerns. Senator Sessions is a person whom we work with, but it is his views and his record that give me great concern.

Just looking back at the first 2 weeks of the Trump administration, I think a growing number of Americans understand the importance of the Constitution, the rule of law, the system of checks and balances, the separation of powers, and the critical importance of the position of the Attorney General of the United States.

Over the years, the Justice Department has grown into one of the largest Cabinet departments, with over 100,000 employees, which touches just about every aspect of life in America today. It is known as the world's largest law office and the chief enforcer of Federal laws.

Just think about the work every day to keep America safe undertaken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the U.S. Attorneys in every State and territory. Think about the work of the National Security Division that tackles some of the toughest terrorism and intelligence challenges we face every day. All of that comes under the Department of Justice. All of that comes under the Attorney General.

Think about the work of the Civil Rights Division to protect all Americans, regardless of their background, to ensure that every American--every American--enjoys full constitutional rights and privileges. Think about the work of the Environmental and Natural Resources Division, the Antitrust Division, and the Tax Division, and so many other offices within the Department of Justice. It is the direction of all of those agencies that come under the Attorney General of the United States. These hard-working employees of the Justice Department keep America safe every day while protecting American lives, and some of them put their lives on the line to do so. We need an Attorney General that will strengthen, not weaken, the Justice Department and will help carry out its important missions.

The Justice Department is charged with '[enforcing] the law and [defending] the interests of the United States according to the law,' '[ensuring the] public safety against threats foreign and domestic,' as well as '[ensuring] fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.' That is their mission. That is their responsibility.

The Attorney General is not the President's lawyer; he or she is the people's lawyer. After carefully examining Senator Sessions' record - including his Senate service, confirmation hearing, and advocacy on the campaign trail for Mr. Trump - I am not convinced that he would be independent and impartial to the President and Federal agencies. I am not convinced he would enforce the law fairly and protect the civil liberties and civil rights of all Americans.

Let me discuss some of my concerns with Senator Sessions' nomination. In this debate, I do want to mention my resolution calling on President Trump to divest his interest and sever his relationship to the Trump organization. My resolution was first introduced last year. It is intended to uphold the value and strictures of one of the most sacred documents: the Constitution, the instrument that the President took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend. It makes clear that Congress will consider all transactions by foreign governments and their agents with the Trump organization as potential violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

The Attorney General is likewise sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and provide legal advice to President Trump and the various Cabinet departments. He must exercise independent judgment. I am concerned as to whether Senator Sessions would, in fact, advise the President, as he should, that by holding on to Trump enterprises - by not divesting or setting up a blind trust - he is putting himself at risk of violating the Constitution of the United States.

It is not what the President wants to hear; it is what he must hear. We need an independent Attorney General in order to make that recommendation to the President of the United States.

Senator Sessions has strongly supported restrictive voter ID laws that have had the effect of disenfranchising many otherwise eligible voters and are frankly modern-day poll taxes. He has called the Voting Rights Act intrusive as it seeks to protect minority voters. He praised the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act, saying that it was 'a good day for the South' when the decision was handed down.

Our next Attorney General should be working on how to expand the franchise, not restrict it. Now President Trump has said he will direct Vice President Pence to lead a task force or commission to examine so-called voter fraud in the 2016 Presidential election.

We need an independent Attorney General.

Why is President Trump taking this action? Because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, and that gets under his skin. He feels slighted. He feels his legitimacy is brought into question. It doesn't matter that he won the electoral vote. So the President will direct the Vice President, and presumably his next Attorney General, to investigate these bogus claims of voter fraud. Instead, the new Attorney General should examine voter suppression and disenfranchisement in the elections. I fear this new study on widespread 'voter fraud' is simply a pretext to impose more onerous restrictions on the right to vote--to try to keep a certain segment of Americans--making it more difficult for them to vote because they may be more likely to vote for someone other than Mr. Trump. That is not what the Attorney General should be doing.

Based on his record, Senator Sessions would work with the Trump administration to further restrict the right to vote and roll back the clock on this cherished civil right, which is protected by our Constitution.

On the issue of immigration, Senator Sessions has a long record where he has fought against bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate. He led the efforts in 2007 and in 2013 to defeat bipartisan legislation in the Senate. He used the untruthful 'amnesty' tag to describe the tough-but-fair pathway to citizenship in this legislation, which passed by a 68-to-32 vote in 2013. He has opposed relief for the DREAMers and has opposed the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals--DACA--program. He supported anti-immigration State laws in Arizona and elsewhere that the Supreme Court has struck down as unconstitutional.

During the Presidential campaign, Mr. Trump issued a press release 'calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.' Several days later, Senator Leahy offered a resolution in the Judiciary Committee that stated, 'It is the sense of the Senate that the United States must not bar individuals from entering the United States based on their religion, as such action would be contrary to the fundamental principles of which this nation was founded.' The vote was 16 to 4 in favor of the Leahy resolution. Senator Sessions voted no and spoke against the resolution for nearly half an hour and concluded by stating that the Leahy resolution 'goes beyond being unwise. It is reckless. It is absolute and without qualification. It could have pernicious impacts for decades, even centuries to come. It may be even a step from the concept of the nation-state to the idea of 'global citizenship.'

Barring a religious test of people coming into our Nation would create that type of a Nation? That is who we are as a Nation. Those are our core values. We embrace diversity.

Senator Sessions' views are far outside the mainstream and would unsettle many years of law and precedent that protect individual religious beliefs.

I am gravely concerned about how an Attorney General Sessions would advise President Trump on the lawfulness of a Muslim ban. He recently issued his Executive order, which a district court has put on hold and is now being challenged in the Ninth Circuit. I cosponsored legislation to rescind President Trump's discriminatory Executive order barring immigrants from Muslim-majority countries and suspending the U.S. refugee program.

I am also concerned as to how Attorney General Sessions would advise the President on matters of immigration. Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was fired and her conduct was called shameful by President Trump, simply because she was upholding the Constitution, giving her advice. The President has criticized the 'so-called judge' who temporarily stayed his travel ban with an 'outrageous' decision, and said that the judge would be blamed if a terrorist attack occurred in the United States. The Attorney General has to be able to stand up to even the President with these reckless words and actions. We need an independent Attorney General who will uphold the Constitution and recognize that he is not the President's attorney, he is the people's attorney. I am not convinced that Attorney General Sessions would be that type of person.

Senator Sessions led the opposition to the nomination of my fellow Marylander Tom Perez to be the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice when President Obama nominated him in 2009. At the time, Senator Sessions said:

'I am also concerned Mr. Perez will not be committed to fully enforcing our Nation's immigration laws, some I have worked hard on. We need to create a lawful system of immigration. ... He previously served as the President of the Board of CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy organization that has taken some extreme views and been criticized by a number of people in the media. CASA of Maryland issued a pamphlet instructing immigrants confronted by the police to remain silent. CASA also promotes day labor sites. This is where people, often without lawful status, come and seek work ... and [they] oppose restrictions on illegal immigrants receiving drivers' licenses. He was President of the Board.'

That was Senator Sessions' quote. Senator Sessions also commented on Mr. Perez directly:

I am concerned where Mr. Perez will be in this [running the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division]. He has been pretty active politically. When he ran for the Montgomery, MD, county council he responded to a question asking, 'What would you like the voters to know about you?' Mr. Perez said: 'I am a progressive Democrat and always was and always will be.' This is a free country and that is all right. I am just saying, in all fairness, that statement makes me a little nervous.

Again, quoting from Senator Sessions. The Senate did right by my friend and colleague Tom Perez. He was confirmed by the Senate to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice by a 72-to-22 vote. Now, I understand people may have a reason to vote one way or the other, but the reasons stated by Senator Sessions in regard to Mr. Perez caused me great, great concern. Senator Sessions again opposed Mr. Perez when he was later nominated to be Secretary of Labor. In both of these cases, Senator Sessions' views were far outside the mainstream on Mr. Perez.

As the senior Senator from Maryland, I know CASA of Maryland. I have been there. I have seen the people they service. They do extraordinary work to help the immigrant community. They are not a fringe advocacy group. While Mr. Perez is a progressive, he is a dedicated public servant, having been elected by the people of Maryland to the Montgomery County Council and appointed by President Obama to run the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department and later the Labor Department. Mr. Perez worked to expand the right to vote, protect the rights of all Americans, and ensure American workers had a decent wage and employers treated their employees with fairness and respect.

I fear Attorney General Sessions would turn back the clock on so many civil and worker rights that we hold dear as Americans.

Senator Sessions opposed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Senator Sessions supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, opposed the repeal of don't ask, don't tell in the military, and harshly criticized the Supreme Court's recent decision legalizing same-sex marriages across the country. He harshly criticized the Court for redefining a 'sacred and ancient institution,' and called the ruling 'part of a continuing effort to secularize, by force and intimidation' the Nation. Once again, I fear an Attorney General Sessions would turn back the clock on LGBT rights to a time when individuals would no longer have the legal right to marry the person they love.

Senator Sessions voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, title X funding for contraception, breast screening, and health services for low-income women, and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. He voted to defund Planned Parenthood. I am concerned whether Senator Sessions would enforce equal rights and protection for women as our next Attorney General.

Senator Sessions has consistently fought against criminal justice reform in the Senate and led the effort to defeat the recent bipartisan proposals that would modestly reduce sentencing disparities and ease ex-offenders' reentry into society.

Senator Sessions opposed my Ramos and Liu blue alert act due to fiscal concerns, even though the legislation cost was scored at nominal or less than $1 million for implementation by CBO. Law enforcement agencies strongly supported my legislation, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2015. Blue Alert helps our law enforcement officers, those who are threatened or endangered or where there has been an incident. It gives law enforcement the opportunity to apprehend the suspect in a timely way. It scored nominal or less than $1 million, and was used by Senator Sessions to block this important tool to help our law enforcement officers.

Senator Sessions has generally condemned the Department of Justice's use of its power to investigate law enforcement agencies accused of misconduct and a 'pattern and practice' of violating civil rights, calling consent decrees that mandate reform following these investigations 'an end run around the democratic process.' That causes me concern because that is an important part of what we are doing in my hometown of Baltimore.

We had a major problem in the Freddie Gray episode. We requested a pattern and practice investigation. We are now working with the consent decree. The people of Baltimore and the people of Maryland are anxious to get this matter moving forward and are anxious to see this consent order bring a successful conclusion to that recommendation and investigation.

Senator Sessions led the opposition to Senator Mikulski and my recommendation of Paula Xinis to be a U.S. district judge for the District of Maryland in the Judiciary Committee and on the floor. The Alliance for Justice provided an account of Paula Xinis' confirmation hearing, which I will quote from at length here:

'Turning to the nominee of the District Court of Maryland, Paula Xinis, Senator Sessions unleashed a line of accusatory questions suggesting that Xinis' career as a public defender and civil rights lawyer showed an `agenda' that she would invariably `bring to the bench.' The questions were absurd and unfounded, but they could not be dismissed as such. Instead, Mrs. Xinis had to patiently explain that protecting the rights of America's most vulnerable and disenfranchised had not left her tainted with disqualifying bias.

'Senator Sessions felt compelled to verify that someone with Mrs. Xinis' professional background--which also includes time as a complaint examiner in the DC Office of Police Complaints--would not be biased against police officers. After asking her whether police have a responsibility to try to maintain an orderly and safe environment for the people who live in a city and whether a judge should show empathy for the difficulties that police officers face as well as for those who allege that police have violated their civil rights. Senator Sessions closed with this:

'Can you assure the police officers in Baltimore and all over Maryland that might be brought before your court that they'll get a fair day in court, and that your history would not impact your decision-making? And I raise that particularly because I see your firm [Billy Murphy] is representing Mr. Freddie Gray in that case that's gathered so much attention in Maryland, and there's a lot of law enforcement officers throughout the state and they want to know that they don't have someone who has an agenda to bring to the bench--can you assure them that you won't bring that to the bench?

'The implication is clear: If you defend people against criminal prosecutions, and especially if you represent people in civil rights cases against police, there is a presumption of bias that you must rebut before the Judiciary Committee. One wonders whether Senator Sessions has asked a prosecutor if she would bring to her judicial role an `agenda' against indigent criminal defendants or if a corporate defense lawyer would be biased against employees who allege unlawful discrimination or unpaid wages. I doubt very much he would ask that same question in that circumstance.

'The depth of this double standard is underscored by Senator Sessions' invoking Freddie Gray in particular. Freddie Gray, of course, was fatally injured in Baltimore police custody after being arrested without cause. His death led to grand jury indictments for six officers on homicide and assault charges, and the Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation. Under these circumstances, representing Mr. Gray's family hardly seems like an act of radical subversion that would call into question one's ability to be fair, but in Senator Sessions' view, any challenge to police authority can be done only in pursuit of some extralegal agenda.'

Senator Sessions led the floor opposition to Paula Xinis. I am pleased to report she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and she is now one of our distinguished members of the District Court of Maryland, where she serves with great distinction.

Senator Sessions was one of only nine Senators to vote against the Detainee Treatment Act, which contained the McCain-Feinstein amendment that prohibits 'cruel, inhumane, and degrading' punishment for individuals in American custody. He has left the door open to reinstating waterboarding as needed. He has opposed shutting down Guantanamo Bay.

These issues are critically important because we got word of a draft Executive order that would bring back these types of torture centers - which are not only a stain on America's reputation, they are counterproductive and against our values and our law. We expect the Attorney General of the United States to speak out against such reprehensible types of proposals.

Thomas Jefferson wrote: 'The most sacred of the duties of government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all of its citizens.' This sacred duty remains the guiding principle for the women and men of the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the Justice Web site. I would urge all of us to keep that in mind.

I regret I do not have confidence that Senator Sessions will carry out this task so I must oppose his nomination.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.