Policy

Democrats to Grill Sessions on Race, Civil Rights

NAACP cites prosecution of three black voting rights advocates

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley meets with fellow committee member and Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in his Capitol Hill office on Nov. 29. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Democrats will turn the tables this week on Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosecutor who often doggedly questioned executive branch nominees during his 20 years on the Judiciary Committee.

Don’t expect them to go easy on their colleague as the Alabama Republican's two days of confirmation hearings start Tuesday.

Democrats have voiced concerns on almost every part of Sessions' career in public service — going as far back as 30 years ago to allegations of racial insensitivity that foiled his bid to be a federal judge, and as recently as last Congress for his staunchly conservative stances on immigration, criminal sentencing and voting rights laws.

“I’ve got so many things I want to ask Jeff about,” said Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “I’ve been in the chair listening to his speeches over the years, and now I finally get to ask him about them.”

Don't expect Sessions to wilt, even if the lights in the hearing room will feel a bit hotter than usual. The Sessions hearing is the first for a raft of President-elect Donald Trump's nominees, and it comes amid heightened attention on racial issues nationally and as a direct result of an election in which the topic of race was a common source of controversy.

Sessions, 70, trim and polished, appears to have enough support from Senate Republicans to win confirmation to be the nation’s top law enforcement official. One of the senators introducing him at the hearing will be Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the kind of moderate Republican that the 46 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the minority will need to get the 51 votes necessary to stop Sessions’ confirmation.

Democrats will question whether Sessions’ record shows him to be the right choice to run a Justice Department that enforces the nation’s civil rights laws, investigates public officials and gives legal advice to the administration. Others, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., plan to explore whether Sessions can maintain his independence from the president-elect he actively supported during the campaign.

Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa set just one day for Sessions to testify to avoid what he said “some liberal interest groups are clearly hoping for — an attack on his character.” GOP Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a Trump critic during the campaign and a new committee member, urged colleagues “for a thoughtful national discussion rather than a bare-knuckled brawl.”

[GOP Plans Swift Confirmation of Sessions for Attorney General]

Sessions plans to cast himself as strong on civil rights and a follower of the rule of law, as seen by his committee paperwork and a campaign mounted by advocacy groups supporting him.

He grew up in the towns of Hybart and Camden, southwest of Montgomery, where Rosa Parks sat in the front on a segregated bus in 1955. He became an Eagle Scout and worked in a general store and then a farm equipment dealership, both owned by his father.

Sessions worked as assistant U.S. attorney in 1975 and U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama from 1981 to 1993. He has highlighted his role in minority voting rights and civil rights cases during that time — although the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has called him a civil rights “foe” in part for the prosecution of three black voting rights advocates who were acquitted of voter fraud charges.

The defendants known as the Marion Three are bound to come up at Tuesday’s hearing. Their case was part of his 1986 confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship, along with witnesses who testified that Sessions had called major civil rights organizations “un-American,” used racially insensitive language with associates and even said pot smoking was the only reason he no longer thought the Ku Klux Klan was OK. Sessions contested the characterization of those statements.

Sessions was elected a U.S. senator in 1996 and faced no opposition in 2014 when he was re-elected to his fourth term. He does not hesitate to tangle with Democrats, and has reached across the aisle but not enough to be known as a compromiser.

Sessions supporters generally include various law enforcement groups, and former Clinton-appointed FBI Director Louis Freeh. Former Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said in a letter that he always found Sessions an “honorable and trustworthy person, a smart and good lawyer, and a thoughtful and open minded listener.”

“Do I agree with everything he has ever said or done? Of course not. But I don’t agree with everything anyone I know has ever said or done, including myself,” Lieberman wrote to the committee. “Most people change during their lives, learning from experience, and therefore deserve to be judged on the totality of their life’s work, with greater weight given to more recent behavior.”

That more recent behavior is what civil rights groups have focused on while opposing Sessions’ nomination. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights cites his opposition to updating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after a Supreme Court decision in 2013 gutted an enforcement provision for states including Alabama.

The group also points to his opposition to last year’s bipartisan criminal sentencing overhaul, as well as his opposition to the interests of women and the LGBT community. More than 1,400 law professors signed a separate letter opposing Sessions as attorney general.

[AG Pick Sessions Makes His Case on Civil Rights]

If confirmed, civil rights groups fear the tenacious conservative will reverse course on key Justice Department policies put in place during the Obama administration, such as proactive efforts to enforce voting rights laws and confront use-of-force issues in local police departments.

Fifteen witnesses will testify Wednesday on what is scheduled to be the final day of Sessions’ confirmation hearing, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, an African-American Democrat, who has criticized Sessions. Democrats can use procedural tactics to delay a floor vote, but it remains to be seen if they do that for an important national security position such as attorney general.

Senators who have met with Sessions ahead of the hearing reported that he was as resolute as ever in his views on key issues.

South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott, one of three black senators, had Sessions down to the Palmetto State but declined to say whether he will support his colleague. Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is up for re-election in 2018 in a state won by Trump, was the first to say he would not vote for Sessions after his closed-door meeting with him.

“With the Department of Justice especially, you want somebody who has an unblemished record, and who cares about women’s rights, and gay rights, and civil rights, and human rights and his record just speaks the opposite of that for 30 years,” Brown told SiriusXM’s Joe Madison last week.

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