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Former DOJ Civil Rights Head: Jeff Sessions Is Implementing an Anti-Civil Rights Agenda

StoryAugust 10, 2017
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It’s been six months since Attorney General Jeff Sessions was sworn in as head of the Department of Justice. In that time, Sessions has managed to undo nearly every aspect of Obama’s civil rights legacy. We look at how Sessions is using the Justice Department to roll back decades of progress on civil rights, voting rights, LGBT rights and police reform. We speak with Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She is the former head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Wednesday marked six months since Attorney General Jeff Sessions was sworn in as head of the Department of Justice. In the last half-year, Sessions has wasted no time undoing nearly every aspect of Obama’s civil rights legacy, from voting rights to affirmative action to police reform and LGBT rights. Under Sessions, the Justice Department has reinstituted the use of private prisons, reignited the so-called war on drugs and indicated it will no longer address systemic police abuses. The department has also obstructed the enforcement of federal voting rights laws and, just this week, sided with Ohio’s voter purge program. And it has defended President Trump’s Muslim travel ban and supported Trump’s attacks on sanctuary cities. Most recently, The New York Times reported the Justice Department is now laying the groundwork to undermine affirmative action policies.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Department of Justice, we go to Washington, D.C., to spend the rest of the hour with Vanita Gupta. She was head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice in the Obama administration. She joined the Obama administration’s Justice Department in 2014, just over two months after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As the head of the Civil Rights Division, she led the probe of the Ferguson Police Department. Under her leadership, the Civil Rights Division went on to negotiate 24 agreements with law enforcement agencies to reform their practices. She also emerged as a consistent advocate for transgender and voting rights. Vanita Gupta is now the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! You know, Vanita Gupta, a lot is made of what has President Trump really accomplished in this six months. But if you look at the Justice Department, under the attorney general, under Jeff Sessions, can you assess what has happened? In fact, a great deal has happened, from just oversight of these police departments around the country, that you negotiated while you were head of the Civil Rights Division, to the whole issue of voter rights, LGBTQ rights, etc. Talk about what’s happened in this six months.

VANITA GUPTA: Sure. So, you know, in the last six months, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has certainly implemented an anti-civil rights agenda at the Justice Department, targeting some of the most high-profile areas of work that the Civil Rights Division had been engaged in in years prior. The Civil Rights Division enforces all of our federal civil rights laws. And I think most notably, very early on, the attorney general was cracking away and undercutting long-standing work on LGBT rights and voting rights, indicating, as you said, a pretty serious retreat from police reform work.

And, you know, what’s kind of remarkable about the list of things that he has been doing is—the attorney general knows how the Justice Department works. He was a U.S. attorney in years prior. He knows where the levers are. And he knows how significant it is to change long-standing litigating positions in cases where the Justice Department had been aggressively enforcing civil rights laws. And he hasn’t wasted much time in undercutting a lot of the important civil rights enforcement work of the Civil Rights Division in the six months that he’s been there.

AMY GOODMAN: [inaudible] of these police departments and what Jeff Sessions said he would turn back. Explain what you negotiated, after Michael Brown was gunned down and the uprising took place, what you negotiated with this police department and others around the country.

VANITA GUPTA: Well, I joined the Justice Department just a couple of weeks after the Justice Department had announced that it was opening a probe of the Ferguson Police Department. And during my initial months, that investigation was kind of front and center for me and the team that was working on that investigation. And we produced a report that ended up really, I think, validating in many ways the lived experiences and realities of African-American residents in Ferguson, really showing how, over years and years, long prior to Michael Brown’s death in August of 2014, just long before, how court and police practices had completely kind of degraded and undermined trust in law enforcement and in the courts in Ferguson, really, where African-American residents were being told to pay exorbitant fines and fees for small quality-of-life offenses, for growing high weeds and grass in their lawns and the like.

And we negotiated a consent decree. It became contentious at one point with Ferguson. And on my watch, we had negotiated and announced consent decrees in Cleveland, in Baltimore. We did an investigation into the Chicago Police Department. And one of the first things that Attorney General Jeff Sessions did was really to walk that back, not only through kind of rhetoric, but he issued a memo saying he was going to review all of the existing consent decrees. Now, to be honest with you, what is important to know about that is some of it is not—is bluster, because there are federal court judges around the country that have the ultimate authority to decide whether a consent decree will be terminated or not. So, while the Justice Department is doing this consent decree review, the actual ultimate fate of these consent decrees lies in the hands of federal judges, who take their responsibility very seriously to ensure that the Constitution is enforced in these—in these jurisdictions that have had real breakdowns between the police and the communities that they serve.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Vanita, could you talk about what position the Trump administration has taken on civil asset forfeiture? What does that mean, and what are the implications of it?

VANITA GUPTA: Sure. You know, this is an issue, just like the—Sessions’s whole reigniting of the war on drugs and returning us back to 1980s discredited criminal justice policies, that really demonstrate how out of line and how out of sync the attorney general is from his own party. Civil asset forfeiture is an issue that has garnered widespread bipartisan condemnation. It involves giving police the authority or ability to seize assets from people before they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. And it involves a—you know, in order to challenge that, that seizure, it involves a very laborious, difficult set of processes. And so there’s been a long push, for the last several years, from the right and the left, and I would say the right has—folks on the right have been very concerned about this really from a libertarian standpoint, and—around reforming these practices and raising the threshold of proof that’s required for the government to seize assets and the like.

And one of the things that the attorney general did in the last couple of months was to do away with that reform and go back to older practices. And again, it’s what he’s doing right now with federal crime policy. And the concern is that while the federal criminal justice system is about 14 to 15 percent of the country’s criminal justice systems—most, obviously, states are all operating their own criminal justice systems—he has an enormous bully pulpit. He has funding strings that the Justice Department gives out, a lot of money to every jurisdiction in the country, and can set priorities, can demand things of police departments that they are uncomfortable doing.

And I think an example of that is, you know, prioritizing that local law enforcement should be engaging in federal immigration enforcement. And you’re seeing a really strong pushback on the part of police chiefs around the country who know how devastating that kind of thing can be for police departments’ ability to have the trust of everyone in their communities. If you’ve got immigrant women who are refusing to call the police in domestic violence situations, you know, sometimes those become homicides, homicide situations. Police chiefs know how dangerous that is for community safety. And that’s why you’re hearing them push back. You’ve even had the Fraternal Order of Police push back on this notion that withholding funds from police departments that are trying to have the trust of everyone in their community, that that is—that is not a good thing for policing.

AMY GOODMAN: Vanita Gupta, we wanted to get your response to that moment several weeks ago when President Trump even shocked his own Joint Chiefs of Staff when he issued those three tweets in a row that said he would be banning trans people from serving in the military. It was so broad, including pulling people out of the military. Others couldn’t join the military. After the first tweet, that simply had said, “After consultation with my Generals and”—I think he said, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government…” And after that first tweet—dot, dot, dot—the military apparently thought he might be announcing—he might be announcing that the U.S. was going to bomb North Korea. But what in fact he did say, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the [United States] Government”—and, he went on to say, would be banning people in the military, that transgender people would not be able to serve in the military. He ended by saying, “Thank you.” Your response?

VANITA GUPTA: I was disgusted. It is—that was cruel. It was deplorable. And what is more shocking about that is that, I mean, he said “after consultation,” and it turns out that senior leaders in the military and the Defense Department were caught completely blindsided by those tweets. He’s creating and announcing kind of tweets with cruel social policy over Twitter without kind of the consultation that he’s claiming he has.

I just—you know, sometimes I just wonder: You know, is he tweeting these things out as a distraction to some of the very serious breakdowns in the White House? But this involves real human beings, who are—who have committed to a life of service to the U.S. military, that he is now just kind of cruelly, categorically denouncing. And it doesn’t even fit with some of his prior statements in LGBT rights, claiming to be a champion of LGBT rights and the like. Look, I don’t—this kind of stuff is absolutely cruel. There’s no reason for it.

And what’s interesting now is that we now know that the military says that they aren’t even sure that this will get implemented or how it will be implemented. My guess is that they’re hoping that this is just going to—this kind of policy by tweets may kind of die on the vine, because how does something like that get implemented? When we have some very serious issues and threats facing the nation, this one just seemed like an unnecessary distraction with very cruel implications that—and that’s why you saw the kind of bipartisan kind of outrage expressed.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, they say they’re moving forward with it. So what will happen?

VANITA GUPTA: Well, you know, your—that question is one that I’m asking and that many of us are asking. There’s litigation. There was a lawsuit that was filed yesterday, and I suspect there will be—there will be more. But I think everyone’s waiting to see what is actually going to happen with this, because there hasn’t been any plan or process that’s been put in place. When the White House spokesperson got asked about what this was going to look like and what was going to—what the next steps were, the spokesperson had no idea, either. And so, again, I think that we are in a wait-and-see approach. There’s certainly going to be a lot of challenges to this policy. And why anyone thinks that this serves the United States of America is beyond me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Vanita, another issue on which Trump has reversed the Obama administration’s legacy is, of course, on voting rights. Earlier this year, he convened a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to look into the so-called question of voter fraud. Can you comment on the significance of that, and if you think that, too, as you said earlier, that these are distractions, his tweets, from the serious breakdowns in the White House? Was that also an effect of that?

VANITA GUPTA: Well, this commission, I think, needs to be—we need to be watching this commission very, very closely. I think there’s no question that its composition—one of the co-chairs is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has had a long-standing agenda to undermine voting rights, to—an anti-immigrant agenda. He crafted SB 1070 in Arizona. He is a co-chair. He has been found by numerous federal courts, his policies, to have been unlawful. He was responsible for unlawful purging of voters in his own state prior to the 2016 election. There are three other individuals who similarly have long track records of trying to restrict the franchise: Hans von Spakovsky, J. Christian Adams, Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s former secretary of state, who threw out a bunch of ballots because they weren’t printed on the right card stock, and received a lot of controversy.

The concern here is that when the president, after the election, claimed that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally, with absolutely no proof to substantiate that whatsoever—and, of course, he won that election—that that kind of created the groundwork for this commission. Kris Kobach has wanted to amend the 1993 National Voter Registration Act for quite some time. He met with the president-elect before—I think it was in December—with a plan in mind to have this amendment. And there’s no question that this commission is going to try to find evidence, and inflate it wildly, of claims of voter fraud and try to use that as a prelude to mass voter suppression, to amend the National Voter Registration Act. And I think it is incumbent on all of us who care about voting rights to make sure that state and local election officials understand they have a lot of power in making sure that voters don’t get unlawfully purged off of their rolls. It is going to be really important for state officials, who have long had power over how their elections get administered, that they understand that communities are watching and making sure that voters are not unlawfully purged. But, look, it was this commission—

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Vanita—


AMY GOODMAN: Before we go, in the latest attack on voting rights, the Justice Department filed a brief just Monday—


AMY GOODMAN: —supporting the state of Ohio’s efforts to purge infrequent voters from their election rolls? Can you respond about how significant this is right now?

VANITA GUPTA: That was a very significant decision. It was significant because just under a year ago the same Justice Department had filed a brief articulating a very long-standing position that states can’t pull people off of their rolls just for not voting, for inactivity. They need to have evidence of a move or that somebody has died or something else, like a higher threshold to pull people off of their rolls. That was a long-standing position by the Justice Department—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

VANITA GUPTA: —that this Justice Department reversed.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Vanita Gupta, I want to thank you very much for being with us, president and chief executive now of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, formerly head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice during the Obama administration.

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