Oct 18 2017
Washington—Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today spoke at an oversight hearing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
“As I mentioned at your confirmation hearing, I’ve got a deep belief of the independence of the attorney general. Although we’ve had attorneys general who view their job as serving the president and as an extension of the White House, I do not believe that’s the job of the attorney general.
The attorney general’s master is the people and the law. Importantly, his job is to enforce federal law fairly and equally for all Americans, which is why I was surprised that in April, you declared that the Justice Department, quote, “is in a new era. This is the Trump era,” end quote.
I want for a moment to explore, with a few issues, what you mean by that. And let me begin with voting rights.
During your confirmation hearing, you testified, and I quote, “the aggressive enforcement of laws to ensure access to the ballot for every eligible voter without hindrance or discrimination,” end quote, would be a, quote, “special priority,” end quote. I was really very pleased to hear that.
However, this year the Justice Department discarded its longstanding position on a Texas voter ID law.
For nearly six years, the Department of Justice had argued that the Texas law was unconstitutional and intended to discriminate against minority voters – based on evidence that shows voter ID laws, quote, “have a disproportionate effect on minorities.”
Despite this, just two weeks after you were confirmed, the department dropped its opposition to the Texas law.
The department also changed its position on another key voting rights case—this one involving Ohio’s purge of voters.
Under Ohio’s procedure, voters who hadn’t cast a ballot in six years, and failed to return a postcard were removed from state voting rolls.
This process reportedly resulted in the removal of 40,000 voters in one county alone—Cuyahoga County, which covers Cleveland and its surrounding suburbs.
Civil rights organizations challenged the process, arguing that the National Voter Registration Act forbids the state from removing individuals for failing to vote.
In July 2016, the Justice Department told the court it opposed Ohio’s purge and in September 2016, the Sixth Circuit agreed that Ohio’s process for removing voters from its rolls was illegal. This ruling cleared the way for thousands of Ohioans to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election.
However, that decision is being appealed to the Supreme Court, and now the Department of Justice is taking the side of removing voters from the rolls—even though the last election clearly demonstrated how this policy harms eligible voters.
I’d now like to turn now to LGBT rights. Throughout my career I’ve worked to ensure LGBT Americans have equal rights and protections under the law.
And it’s important to me that we preserve these protections, and this committee should not tolerate efforts to undermine the progress that’s been made.
At your confirmation hearing, you testified, and I quote, “We must continue to move forward and never back… I will ensure the statutes protecting [the LGBT community’s] civil rights and their safety are fully enforced,” end quote.
So I was very pleased to learn that the department is sending a top hate crimes lawyer to Iowa to assist with prosecution of the case of a transgender teenager murdered last year.
According to the Times, this decision was “personally initiated” by you.
However, I was also surprised and concerned to learn that this summer the Justice Department switched its position on Title VII and is now arguing that the law does NOT protect LGBT workers.
Then, on October 5—just two weeks ago—you issued a memorandum to all U.S. attorneys and agency heads, instructing them that the department must now take the position that Title VII also does not protect transgender employees in all cases.
In other words, it appears that your department is urging the courts to allow employers to discriminate against all LGBT workers across the country. I hope you’ll clear that up in your testimony.
There are other controversial policies being implemented at Justice. The president’s travel ban, for example.
Multiple federal courts found the Muslim ban unconstitutional, including another court in Hawaii just yesterday. These travel ban efforts are an affront to our nation’s commitment to religious liberty. Yet the Justice Department staunchly defends the ban.
On DACA. You recommended in September that the program be terminated. And I think we believe these young people have placed their trust in the government. They have come out of the shadows. They have provided all of their information to authorities. They seek the opportunity to “get right with the law.” And I think most of us believe these DREAMers embody the American spirit and have made positive contributions to the country. So we should stand by them.
Finally, we will also want to hear about the firing of FBI Director James Comey. President Trump initially said he fired Director Comey based on your recommendation and that of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Within days, however, the president admitted to Lester Holt on NBC News that he actually fired Comey because of, quote, “the Russia thing,” end quote.
It’s also been reported that the day before he fired Director Comey, President Trump summoned his top advisors and told them that he had prepared a termination letter.
It’s important, I believe, to understand what role you had in this process – including conversations with the president and others in the White House.
Last week, the Democratic members of this committee sent a letter making it clear we would be asking about Director Comey’s firing at this hiring and that we expected answers or the assertion of a valid claim of executive privilege by the president.
In conclusion, attorney general, your department is incredibly important and you are as well.
Our country depends on a department that’s independent and committed to protecting the rights and freedoms of all Americans—not just some. So we look forward to hearing from you on these and other important issues.”