Fourteen University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professors joined a group of more than 1,200 in sending a letter to Congress, urging the Senate to reject President-elect Donald Trump's pick for attorney general.
The law professors – representing 176 schools in 49 states – are convinced Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) "will not fairly enforce our nation's laws and promote justice and equality in the United States," the letter states.
"Mr. Sessions has a long history of bias, and specially, of racial bias – the kind of racial bias that works to suppress the very essence of a democratic nation," said Maryland law professor Taunya Lovell Banks, who signed the letter. "I have grave reservations about his suitability for a position of this sort."
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions for a federal judgeship, which the Senate Judiciary Committee later blocked in a vote of 10 to eight. During the 19-hour hearing, senators questioned Sessions about allegations of racial insensitivity, and heard testimony from witnesses who said Sessions joked about the Ku Klux Klan and called the NAACP "un-American."
"I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create," Sessions said to the committee at the time. "I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks."
But the professors who signed the letter remain concerned, stating that "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 law professors laid out a list of other concerns they had with the Alabama lawmaker, including his support for Trump's proposed wall along the southern border, his "robust support for regressive drug policies that have fueled mass incarceration," and his "misguided" prosecution of three civil rights activists for voter fraud in Alabama in 1985.
"Sen. Sessions is being nominated to head the justice department, which has, as one of its primary responsibilities, protecting civil rights," said Maryland law professor Maureen Sweeney, who signed the letter. "He has a long history of being, at minimum, insensitive to civil rights issues, and realistically, being hostile to civil rights issues. He doesn't have the commitments or the capabilities to fulfill to the role of attorney general."
The NAACP is also calling for Sessions' name to be withdrawn from consideration, and members of the group held a sit-in outside his office in Alabama on Tuesday night. Police arrested six protesters, including the group's national president Cornell Brooks, for trespassing.
In response to the NAACP protest, Sessions' spokeswoman Sarah Flores tweeted a statement Tuesday, saying that Sessions has "dedicated his career to upholding the rule of law, ensuring public safety and prosecuting government corruption."
"Many African-American leaders who've known him for decades attest to this and have welcomed his nomination to be the next Attorney General," Flores wrote in the statement. "These false portrayals of Senator Sessions will fail as tired, recycled, hyperbolic charges that have been thoroughly rebuked and discredited."
Former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Gerald Reynolds, who is black, has endorsed Sessions for attorney general.
"During my discussions with Senator Sessions and his staff, it was clear the senator has a strong interest in ensuring our nation's anti discrimination laws are vigorously enforced," Reynolds wrote in a letter to ranking members of the Judiciary Committee. "Senator Sessions is a man of great character and integrity with a commitment to fairness and equal justice under the law."
But the professors who oppose Sessions' nomination disagree, and point to the wide cross section of academics who signed on to the letter.
"People who are well-spoken in the law and who know how civil rights law has developed and what it means find him to be unacceptable," Sweeney said. "I think that's an indication that he is unacceptable."
The organizers of the letter are also raising money to run ads in the hometown newspapers of senators who are undecided about their vote on Sessions' nomination. The gofundme page has raised almost $15,000 so far.
The confirmation hearings for Sessions, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, will begin Jan. 10-11.
As that date approaches, Banks said she is "deeply troubled."
"I am over 70 years old and have certainly, for almost 50 of those years, been very much aware of the role of the attorney general," she said. "There have been some that I've liked, and some that I haven't. But I've never thought any of the people appointed by the president were totally unsuitable, and that's how I feel about Sessions."