More than 1,400 law school faculty members from 180 institutions have signed an open letter urging the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to reject the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for the position of attorney general.
The letter is addressed to Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and top Democrat on the committee Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and is dated Jan. 9.
“The Attorney General is the top law enforcement officer in the United States, with broad jurisdiction and prosecutorial discretion,” the letter reads. “As law faculty who work every day to better understand the law and teach it to our students, we are convinced that Jeff Sessions will not fairly enforce our nation’s laws and promote justice and equality in the United States.”
The open letter was organized by seven law professors, all of whom previously studied as Georgetown University Law Center’s teaching fellows.
Georgetown University Law Center visiting associate professor Vida Johnson helped organize the letter, along with six other law professors currently teaching at various prestigious different universities including the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University.
The letter refers to previous accusations of racism against Sessions, which sunk his federal judgeship nomination in 1986, as one of the drafters’ primary concerns regarding his record. Specifically, the letter calls attention to statements regarded as reflecting prejudice against African-Americans, which led the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject then-President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Sessions, who was at that point a U.S. Attorney, for federal judgeship.
“Nothing in Senator Sessions’ public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge,” the letter reads.
All seven organizers of the open letter had previously been teaching fellows in the GULC’s E. Barrett Prettyman Fellowship and Stuart Stiller Post-Graduate Fellowship Program for law school graduates. Dismayed by the choice of Sessions, Sterling proposed the letter to her colleagues, who quickly agreed to join.
“I remember thinking I just wanted to be on record opposing this man,” Johnson said in an interview with The Hoya. “We never dreamed it would be as wildly successful as it has been.”
Still, supporters and organizers doubt it will have any effect on Sessions’ confirmation. The Senate has only ever rejected nine cabinet members. The most recent came in 1989 when then-President George H.W. Bush nominated John Tower, a former senator, to the position of secretary of defense. The Senate rejected Tower by a vote of 53-47 after accusations of drunkenness, womanizing and ties to defense contractors came about.
GULC professor Joe Pileri, who signed the letter, said he is realistic about the prospects of success.
“Do I think that it’s going to turn the tide? I think that’s unlikely,” Pileri said. “We always hope that it will have an effect, but we’re also not harboring the illusion that this is going to change things.”
Johnson said she acknowledges the effort against Sessions faces steep odds.
“We’re not naive; we realize that this is an uphill battle,” Johnson said. “But listen, this is a guy who a Republican-led Congress has already rejected, and for a far less important role. Obviously judges are important, but not more important than the one person in charge of enforcing all our federal laws.”
While the letter specifically cites the 1986 racism controversy, it notes that individual signers have their own personal motivations for opposing Sessions’ nomination. Among the other possible concerns mentioned in the letter are Sessions’ position on women’s and LGBTQ issues, his support for Trump’s proposed border wall and his questioning of human-caused climate change.
GULC professor David Luban wrote in an email to The Hoya that he does not base his opposition on the 1986 racism accusations, but rather on what Sessions’ more recent positions on civil and human rights issues would mean for his role as attorney general.
“Senator Sessions is an outspoken adversary of LGBTQ rights and the Voting Rights Act,” Luban wrote. “In addition, he voted against the 2005 McCain Amendment, which outlawed cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives. Torture and cruelty are fundamental affronts to human rights, and I have followed this issue keenly for years.”
Feinstein has called on Grassley to allow for members of the Congressional Black Caucus to testify at the hearing as well as more time for the committee to review all the nomination documents. Feinstein Press Secretary Ashley Schapitl said Feinstein knows about the letter.
“She’s aware of the letter but doesn’t have specific comment on it,” Schapitl wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Sessions will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday for the first day of hearings on his nomination. If the committee votes to approve his nomination, a vote by the full Senate will be the final hurdle for Sessions’ confirmation as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.