Former Gov. Deval Patrick, who once faced off in an Alabama courtroom against Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions, wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday accusing the senator of "quasi-judicial activism" that Patrick says makes him unfit to lead the Justice Department.
Patrick, the former two-term governor of Massachusetts and civil rights attorney in the Justice Department under President Bill Clinton, opposed Sessions in an Alabama voting rights case in 1985 when Patrick worked as a staff lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Though he has shied from speaking up on politics since leaving office, he urged the Republican-controlled committee to reject Sessions' nomination based on his behavior in the three-decades-old case that undermined the senator's past nomination for a federal judgeship.
"At a time when our Nation is so divided, when so many feel so deeply that their lived experience is unjust, Mr. Sessions is the wrong person to place in charge of our justice system," Patrick wrote in the three-page letter provided to the News Service by the committee.
Patrick, who now works for Bain Capital, apologized for not being able to deliver his testimony in person when the committee opens its confirmation hearing for Sessions on Jan. 10. Patrick plans to be traveling overseas.
Though the governor said he has not had any direct contact with Sessions since the trial in the mid-'80s, he wrote that confirming Sessions could be seen as condoning what Patrick considers to be the targeting of black voting rights at a time when the country "needs healing."
Sessions, who served 12 years as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama before being elected to the Senate in 1996, was an early supporter of President-elect Donald Trump, who called him a "world-class legal mind" when he nominated him to become attorney general. In Massachusetts, the Sessions nomination was met with condemnation from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Attorney General Maura Healey, but many national police and law enforcement groups have praised Trump's selection.
"The nation's sheriffs and deputies know Sen. Sessions will support them because throughout his career he has been a crime fighter who seeks justice fairly. As a U.S. attorney and Alabama attorney general, he successfully pursued and prosecuted violent criminals, corrupt politicians and white collar criminals," Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the National Sheriff's Association, wrote in an op-ed published by The Hill on Monday and circulated by the Trump transition team.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Charles Grassley, has also received letters of support from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of former attorneys general and deputy attorneys general, former drug enforcement officials and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"All of us know him as a person of honesty and integrity, who has held himself to the highest ethical standards throughout his career, and is guided always by a deep and abiding sense of duty to this nation and its founding charter," read one letter submitted to the committee by former Attorney General John Ashcroft and others who have held the position.
Patrick in 1985 represented one of three community activists that came to be known as the "Perry County Three" who were being targeted by federal prosecutors for alleged voting fraud. The case was being prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Sessions.
Patrick wrote that the presiding judge in the case made clear at the trial's outset that it was not a federal crime for someone to help someone else vote or advise them how to vote if such help is requested. Sessions, according to Patrick, opted to pursue the case anyway and focused his investigation on absentee balloting by black voters in districts where white incumbents were losing political ground despite the widespread use of absentee ballots by white voters and their advocates.
"To use prosecutorial discretion to attempt to criminalize voter assistance is wrong and should be disqualifying for any aspirant to the Nation's highest law enforcement post," Patrick wrote.
All three defendants in the case were ultimately acquitted by a jury. Patrick said that despite a reputation for plea bargaining criminal cases, Sessions refused to consider a deal in the voting rights case. Sessions listed the case on his questionnaire for the Senate Judiciary Committee as one of the 10 most significant litigation matters in which he has been involved, along with another case that he prosecuted in Alabama involving the intimidation of and discrimination against black voters.
Noting that Sessions' nomination for a federal judgeship in 1986 was withdrawn "on a bipartisan basis," Patrick suggests that a "similar outcome" would be appropriate this time around.
At one point rumored to be under consideration by Hillary Clinton to become her running mate, Patrick wrote that he believes presidents should "within the basic bounds of preparedness and qualifications" be granted leeway to choose their own teams.
"Donald Trump was not my candidate, but he is my President-elect," he wrote. "While I do not expect to agree with him on every appointment or policy choice, I believe it would be irresponsible and unpatriotic to oppose everything he does even before he does it."
Patrick, however, said that the tenor of the election has left many Americans feeling "discouraged" and "given some in our country the view that they have permission to treat other Americans as lesser because of the color of their skin or the free exercise of their religion.
"If America is to be what the Founders committed her to be, if we are to be the land of liberty and justice for all, this kind of behavior cannot be sanctioned or encouraged - directly or indirectly," he wrote.