In Ari Berman’s terrific Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, The Nation correspondent spends little time on what is familiar terrain – Lyndon Johnson’s full endorsement of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 – to explore less hallowed ground. Thanks to the invaluable John Lewis – bludgeoned on the Edmund Pettus Bridge – and allies, black and white, Democratic and Republican, the Voting Rights Act survived dilution by the Nixon administration to actually get more encompassing with each congressional reauthorization.
Then a cabal of Justice Department appointees, thriving in the new dawn of Reaganism, sought to undo these advances. Republicans took the Senate for the first time since 1952. Ted Kennedy’s replacement as chair of the Judiciary Committee? Strom Thurmond. Key to these efforts was an ambitious lawyer named John Roberts, who drafted talking points, speeches and op-eds for Reynolds and attorney general William French Smith. “John seemed like he always had it in for the Voting Rights Act,” career Justice Department lawyer Gerry herbert tells Berman. “Voter fraud” replaces reverse discrimination as the new crusade. Lightning strikes are more common yet the zealots insisted on the danger to the Republic. On occasion the truth oozed from the cracks. “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people,” said New Right crusader Paul Weyrich in 1980. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
That’s from my review of Berman’s book in 2015. On the eve of confirmation hearings for Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions of Alabama, Berman argues that my goldfish would be a more qualified attorney general:
In an attempt to repair his reputation, Sessions also lists four civil rights cases he “personally” worked on, including litigation that successfully dismantled discriminatory election systems in the Alabama Black Belt, including in Selma, leading to the election of the first black elected officials on the county commissions and school boards of places like Dallas and Marengo counties. But lawyers with the Civil Rights Division say Sessions did no work on these cases and they put his name on the briefs simply because he was US Attorney at the time.
“Those were my cases,” Gerry Hebert says of the litigation in Dallas and Marengo counties. “He played no role in either of them. When I filed the briefs, I put his name on them, but he never saw them. He had no role whatsoever in filing or approving these cases.”After stepping down as US Attorney in Mobile, Sessions served as Attorney General of Alabama from 1995 to 1997. There, he opposed litigation brought by civil rights groups and agreed to by his predecessor that would have led to the first black judges being appointed to the Alabama supreme court, court of criminal appeals, and court of civil appeals.
And here we are. Longtime colleague Patrick Leahy attached his name to a column in which he comes as close as senatorial courtesy will allow to slapping Sessions’ face with a glove. And he’s going to get confirmed.