Last week, after Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter switched his party affiliation from red to blue, Alabama senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III seemed all but assured to replace him as leader of the Republican bloc on the Senate judiciary committee.
And thus an uncomfortable light shined once again on a man plainly hidden in the ranks of the Senate for a dozen years now. A man known to be one of the most consistently conservative legislators on Capitol Hill. A man noted for his obstructionisttendencies. A man with a chequered history linked to America’s racist past. A man, who has been, arguably, waiting for this moment for the last two decades.
Sessions’s first national exposure was, surely, mortifying for the would-be federal judge. It was 1986, and the then-39-year-old US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama was a Reagan nominee to the federal bench. Sessions had good reason to believe he’d be rubber-stamped through to a judgeship – some 200 of the Gipper’s judges had already been heavily sprinkled throughout the federal judicial system. But Sessions stopped up the works. The young lawyer became only the second man in 50 years to be rejected by the Senate judiciary committee.
The reasons for his rejection, as I explained in this 2002 New Republic story had to do with a soupy mix of dubious and arguably racist moves, comments and motivations on the part of the Alabama native that led senator Ted Kennedy to announce it was “inconceivable … that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a US attorney, let alone a United States federal judge.”
Later Kennedy would say the hearings created a ”clear and convincing case to gross insensitivity to the questions of race” on the part of Sessions. His Democratic colleague, senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, called Sessions a man of ”marginal qualifications who lacks judicial temperament. … A nominee who is hostile, hostile to civil rights organisations and their causes.”
The tip of the problem was a 1984 case that came to be known as the “Marion 3” – Sessions’s prosecution of three civil rights workers over what he perceived as voting fraud. As Lani Guinier lays out in her book Lift Every Voice, before 1965 there were “virtually no blacks registered to vote in the 10 western Black Belt counties of Albama”.
But by the 1980s that had started to change. Through the massive get-out-the-vote efforts of three leaders – including a former aid to Martin Luther King – black voter turnout began to creep toward 80%, and a handful of black legislators were elected. That’s where Sessions stepped in, charging three voting rights organisers with voter fraud. All three were quickly acquitted. Sessions’s choice to focus on their efforts looked a lot less like good governance and a lot more like voter intimidation.
As the Senate judiciary committee mulled this over, several other worrisome notes about the nominee came to light. As I wrote in 2002:
Senate Democrats tracked down a career justice department employee named J Gerald Hebert, who testified, albeit reluctantly, that in a conversation between the two men Sessions had labelled the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) “un-American” and “communist-inspired”. Hebert said Sessions had claimed these groups “forced civil rights down the throats of people.”
In his confirmation hearings, Sessions sealed his own fate by saying such groups could be construed as “un-American” when “they involve themselves in promoting un-American positions” in foreign policy. Hebert testified that the young lawyer tended to “pop off” on such topics regularly, noting that Sessions had called a white civil rights lawyer a “disgrace to his race” for litigating voting rights cases.
If that weren’t enough, a black former assistant US attorney, Thomas Figures, testified that Sessions had called him “boy”, and that he had joked about the Ku Klux Klan in ways that implied he wasn’t particularly appalled by their appalling tactics. UPI reported during the hearings on Figures’s testimony.
”Mr Sessions … stated that he believed the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Operation PUSH and the National Council of Churches were all un-American organisations teaching anti-American values,” Figures testified. ”The statement clearly was not intended as a joke.” Figures also said he was present when Sessions said he believed the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he learned its members smoked marijuana – a statement Sessions has said was clearly made in jest. ”I certainly took it as a serious statement,” Figures said.
Sessions fought the charges. As I wrote in 2002: “[He] denied the accusations but … admitted to frequently joking in an off-colour sort of way. In his defence, he said he was not a racist, pointing out that his children went to integrated schools and that he had shared a hotel room with a black attorney several times.”
He did, however, also admit that he had called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “piece of intrusive legislation”, a phrase he stood behind even in his confirmation hearings. To this day, he argues that Section five – a protective measure that concerns a handful of (mostly southern) states with appalling race histories – of the Voting Rights Act should be struck down.
Sessions’s spot on the federal bench was gone. But his political career was hardly derailed. The Alabaman went on to become the state’s attorney general (where he was again accused of pursuing voter fraud at the expense of the black community.
He won his Senate seat anyway, in 1996, and came to the Senate with the kind of rabid conservatism that today makes people feel the Republican party is out of touch with the country. The ACLU gives him an “anti-civil rights” sticker. The Human Rights Campaign dubs him an unambiguous “anti-gay rights” legislator with a 0% record on gay issues. And the NAACP labels him firmly “anti-affirmative action”.
As Sessions is poised to take up the Republican leadership position on the Senate judiciary committee, it’s hard not to think back to that other judiciary committee of 20 years ago. Sessions lost his judicial nomination by a 10-8 vote, with the Democrats led by none other than a fire-breathing senator Joe Biden, joined by fellow Alabaman Democrat Howell Heflin and two Republicans. It was Arlen Specter – the very same whose defection has promoted Sessions – who cast one of those cross-over votes.
The God of politics has a sense of humour.