The Republican Stronghold of the Senate Judiciary Committee

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Commentary Politics

The Republican Stronghold of the Senate Judiciary Committee

Jessica Mason Pieklo

In their first weeks of leadership, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee show not much has changed in the GOP's approach to civil rights.

A proponent of discriminatory voter ID requirements leading a subcommittee on the Constitution, a man who lost a federal judicial nomination for being “racially insensitive” leading a subcommittee on immigration, and a champion of “states’ rights” leading a subcommittee of federal interests: Welcome to your Senate Judiciary Committee under Republican leadership and the front line in the conservative campaign to undo as much as possible the gains of the civil rights movement.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who now chairs the Judiciary Committee, announced the assignments this month.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) now heads the subcommittee on the Constitution. This used to be the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, but Cornyn’s first order of business was to cut “Civil Rights” and “Human Rights” from the subcommittee’s title, because who needs those, amirite? As subcommittee head, Cornyn announced his job was to be a “watchdog against unconstitutional overreach” and promised to “hold the Obama administration accountable for its actions.”

What kind of unconstitutional overreach has the Obama administration engaged in, according to Sen. Cornyn?

Roe has collapsed and Texas is in chaos.

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It was defending the voting rights of marginalized groups in Texas, rather than allowing states like Texas to run their elections in whatever discriminatory manner they choose to; it is unclear how Cornyn plans to hold the administration “accountable” for that. Maybe by obstructing bipartisan legislation that would restore federal oversight in local and state elections in those jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination (like in Cornyn’s), in response to the Roberts Court gutting a central provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013? After all, there would be no better way both to thwart Democrats and help halt the growing tide against voter ID measures than to make sure the current bipartisan efforts to bring back voter protections go nowhere.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) now heads the subcommittee on “Immigration and the National Interest.” This used to be the Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security, but apparently Sessions thought his subcommittee needed a Republican rebrand as well. Sessions has the dubious distinction of being the only ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to be rejected as a judicial nominee by the same committee he now sits on. Sessions, who was nominated for a federal judgeship during the Reagan administration, had his nomination rejected because he has a history of doing things like calling a white lawyer a “disgrace to his race” for litigating voting rights cases and confiding in a colleague that he didn’t think the Klan was all that bad until he found out some of them smoked pot.

So yeah, that guy is helping take the lead for Senate Republicans and steer their immigration policies through committee.

Tea Party favorite and federal government detractor Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) now heads the Subcommittee on Oversight, Federal Rights, and Agency Actions, which is almost too absurd a sentence to finish. Cruz, as you may know, has rallied against the so-called federal tyranny of the Affordable Care Act and supported a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality.

I haven’t even mentioned Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). At one point during his Senate campaign, Tillis—an ardent defender of voter ID laws—complained that unlike for Blacks or Latinos, birth rates for “traditional” North Carolinians were not expanding, so the GOP would have to do a much better job with “minority” voter outreach. Um, yeah. Tillis is now on the Judiciary Committee as a freshman senator, because of course he is.

I’ll give the Republicans this: The committee assignments, and their Republican rebrands, show an honesty among Senate Republicans as to the party’s priorities and constituents. One would think the idea of Jeff Sessions heading up a subcommittee directed at refugees, when a central tenant of the GOP platform on immigration is to deport as many people as possible, or the idea of John Cornyn leading a subcommittee charged with advancing civil rights, when he’s among the most strident supporter of racist, discriminatory voter ID laws, would immediately have been chucked out the window. Nope!

As Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, the GOP is great for rich white guys.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Under Republican control, the Senate Judiciary Committee represents an old-guard conservative approach to fighting against civil rights at the very time when debates over police brutality and voter discrimination are back in both the national spotlight and the federal courts. “States’ rights” and “the national interest” have always been code among conservatives for reinforcing white supremacist structures—and they always will be. Reminding the public of that truth will be progressives’ task for the next two years.