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Jeff Sessions' record on desegregation draws fresh scrutiny

When Donald Trump's spokesperson said Jeff Sessions "filed a number of desegregation lawsuits," that wasn't exactly true.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jan. 8, 2014.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jan. 8, 2014.
Shortly after Donald Trump chose Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as his choice for Attorney General, the president-elect's team put together talking points for Senate Republicans, urging them to sing the senator's praises. In particular, Team Trump asked GOP lawmakers to say Sessions has a "strong civil rights record."Given the senator's actual civil rights record, it's a tough sell.But as Politico reported., the talking points were also more specific in some cases, noting that Sessions also "led desegregation lawsuits in his home state." Trump's spokesperson pushed the same line with reporters recently, claiming the Alabama Republican "filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama" during his tenure as a U.S. Attorney.But did that actually happen? The Atlantic's Adam Serwer did some interesting digging into Sessions' record.

The Atlantic could not find evidence Sessions filed any new school desegregation lawsuits. Searches of the legal databases Westlaw and PACER found no evidence that any new school-desegregation lawsuits were filed in Alabama's Southern District by Sessions between 1981, when Sessions became U.S. attorney in Alabama, and 1995, when he became Alabama attorney general, though it is possible that the records exist but are not in those databases. The Atlantic could find no reference to the claim in the transcripts of his 1986 confirmation hearing.Former Justice Department officials and civil-rights experts expressed puzzlement when asked about the claim, in part because nearly every school in Alabama was under desegregation orders by the 1970s, years before Sessions became U.S. attorney.

The report noted that even if there were such cases during Sessions' tenure, they would've been filed by the Justice Department's civil rights division, not the local U.S. Attorney.So did Sessions and Team Trump straight-up lie about the senator's record? Not exactly.As it turns out, there were desegregation cases filed in Alabama decades before Sessions became a federal prosecutor, which were ongoing for many years. The Atlantic found one such case, for example, that was filed in 1963 -- and lasted for 34 years.As a procedural matter, Sessions' name ended up on some cases simply by virtue of his position at the time, but they weren't cases he filed or had any direct role in. When Trump's spokesperson said the Alabama Republican "filed a number of desegregation lawsuits," that was, at best, an exaggeration.I can appreciate why Sessions' boosters are working overtime to put his record in the most favorable possible light; his civil-rights record is deeply controversial for the same reasons the Senate rejected him when the Reagan administration nominated him for the federal bench.But by fudging some of the relevant details, we're only reminded of why Sessions' background has proven to be problematic in the first place.