Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is the new point man for the Republican Party in terms of the confirmation hearings for the eventual nominee to replace Justice David Souter.
Senator Sessions has a troubled past where civil rights is concerned and personally, he leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. He was named the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was left vacant last week after Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) switched parties. Sessions will walk a very fine line when he takes center stage to challenge President Obama’s choice for the court. It’s ironic that Sessions’ own 1986 nomination to the federal courts turned into a racially tinged firestorm.
I wondered how a man like Sessions came to be selected to such a key position. Apparently his selection was the result of a compromise brokered with more senior Republican senators. Quite the opposite of moderate Specter, Sessions is a staunch conservative who opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. He promotes a strict view that judges should adhere to the original intent of the Founding Fathers in their rulings. To his credit, he has demonstrated a level of political independence — publicly challenging former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ competency to run the Justice Department amid a series of scandals two years ago, as well as being instrumental in helping to kill President George W. Bush’s proposed changes to the immigration law in 2007. Still, his seemingly racist past is still a problem for me, much like Jesse Helms, Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond.
Twenty-three years ago he was engaged in the fight of his life. He was appointed a U.S. attorney in Alabama in 1981 and was nominated to become a U.S. District judge by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. J. Gerald Hebert, a career Justice Department lawyer, testified that Sessions had once called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.” He said that they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.” He 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. He is said to have made remarks that he thought the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t so bad until he found out that some of them smoked marijuana. He said these comments were made in jest. Right.
Sessions faced a heated round of questioning from Sen. Edward Kennedy, who called him “a throwback to a shameful era,” and our current Vice President, Joe Biden. How ironic. The committee held four hearings during one of which Sessions pleaded that “I am not a racist.” Hebert also testified that Sessions had called a white civil rights lawyer a “disgrace to his race” for litigating voting rights cases. His nomination failed in committee on a 10 to 8 vote, with Specter joining the nominee’s original patron, Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) in dooming the nomination. In 1994, Sessions won a state attorney general’s race, and then won election to the Senate in 1996 after Heflin retired.
Still, there’s more throwback theater on Sessions. He had unsuccessfully prosecuted three civil rights workers, known as the “Marion Three,” including Albert Turner, who was a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr., on a case of election fraud for the 1984 election. He spent a long time interrogating black voters in predominantly black counties, finding 14 allegedly tampered ballots out of approximately 1.7 million ballots cast. The three civil rights workers were acquitted after four hours of jury deliberation. Civil rights groups charged that Sessions had been looking for voter fraud in the black community while overlooking the same violations among whites, at least partly to help reelect his friend Senator Denton.
So, Senator Jeff Sessions being the Republican Party point man, or gatekeeper, for the confirmation hearings for the next Supreme Court justice rings really hollow and is very troubling. If you ask me, he’s a closet racist. An undercover racist, if you will. He has to walk a really fine line between being fair and coming off as the Jeff Sessions of old. He has a very troubling racist past and that’s a pretty big pill to swallow. If he’s the face of the Republican Party on the Judiciary Committee, then they are in worse shape that I thought.