Policy

Booker, Lewis Challenge Sessions’ Commitment to Civil Rights

Say AG nominee has no track record of championing cause

From left, Louisiana Rep. Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana, Georgia Rep. John Lewis and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker attend the second day of Senate Judiciary confirmation hearings for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Three black lawmakers forcefully testified against Sen. Jeff Sessions becoming attorney general on Wednesday, closing out a confirmation hearing in which Democrats aired concerns about the Alabama Republican’s civil rights record.

Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon, expressed concern with Sessions’ commitment to enforcing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed in the wake of a violent law enforcement reaction against Lewis and others marching from Selma to Montgomery. Lewis participated in that Alabama march known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“It doesn’t matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you,” Lewis told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “But we need someone who’s going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people who need help. For people who have been discriminated against.”

Sessions testified for more than 10 hours on Tuesday, saying that he would follow the laws as written to protect voting rights, a woman’s right to an abortion and civil rights. The 70-year-old senator, who grew up near Montgomery, said he deeply understood the history of civil rights and “the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination” had on African-Americans.

Sessions appears to have enough support from Senate Republicans to win confirmation. He remained relatively unscathed after he defended his record and told the committee he would be independent from President-elect Donald Trump. Sessions has said he will recuse himself and not vote on his own nomination.

Lewis was on a panel Wednesday with two fellow Democrats, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. They appeared with three other black witnesses, invited by committee Republicans, who have known Sessions for a long time and who testified against attacks on his qualifications to be the nation’s top law enforcement official.

“We have seen people who do not know Sen. Sessions claim to know him and his heart,” said William Smith, former chief counsel of a Judiciary Committee subcommittee who has known Sessions for about 20 years. “I doubt any one of those individuals attacking Sen. Sessions outside yesterday has spent 30 minutes in the same room with him.”

[AG Pick Sessions Defends Record at Contentious Hearing]

Richmond, however, said Sessions has no track record of championing civil rights despite the characterizations at his confirmation hearing this week. He and Lewis spoke of dark forces trying to undo voting rights progress.

“Each and every senator who casts a vote to confirm Sessions will be permanently marked as a co-conspirator in an effort to move this country backwards, in toward a darker period in our shared history,” Richmond said.

Booker said the attorney general must pursue civil rights and equal protection for all of America, and will heavily influence the crisis of mass incarceration.

“Sen. Sessions has not dedicated a commitment to a central requisite for this job,” Booker said. “In fact, at numerous times in his career, he has demonstrated hostility towards these convictions.”

Booker said he knows “some colleagues aren’t happy I am breaking with Senate tradition” by testifying against a colleague, but argued that he stands with his conscience and country over Senate norms.

“This is a time that whatever the outcome, you can’t be silent,” Booker told reporters after the hearing.

Watch Booker’s Full Testimony Against Sessions

Richmond also used his testimony to criticize Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa for scheduling the lawmakers to go last at the hearing, calling it “the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus.”

Grassley was asked Tuesday night about concerns from committee Democrats about the order of testimony, and if there was a reason why the black lawmakers would speak after a panel of outside witnesses.

“Because the request came in after … the agenda was already set so the place to put them is where they are now,” Grassley said.

[NAACP Sits In at Sessions' Mobile Office]

The committee also heard Wednesday from a separate panel of nine witnesses that included supporters of Sessions— such as former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson — as well as critics from the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mukasey, in written testimony, praised Sessions but also sought to defend him from “scurrilous attacks” on his character.

“Of all the insidious practices that have crept into our politics in recent time, I know of none more insidious than the casual and unjustified accusations of racism, smears that once leveled are difficult to wipe clean,” Mukasey wrote in his testimony.

David Cole, ACLU national legal director, said in his written testimony that Sessions’ past statements and actions on civil rights have demonstrated “not just insensitivity but active hostility to the rights of many of our fellow citizens.”

“We believe that it is especially important, at this time, to ensure that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer is a uniter, not a divider,” Cole said. “Controversy about the fairness of our justice system, especially along racial lines, has roiled our nation in recent years.”

The committee has not scheduled a vote on the Sessions nomination, and can’t act on it until Trump is sworn in Jan. 20 and sends the paperwork, Grassley said Tuesday night.

Rema Rahman contributed to this report.

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