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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Déjà vu for Senator Sessions

During the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Senator Jeff Sessions made several chastising comments to the judge regarding her widely noted "wise Latina" comment from 2001, suggesting that she would be prejudiced against whites in her judicial decisions. This line of questioning seemed particularly disingenuous in light of Senator Sessions personal history. Seems the Senator himself was once at the receiving end of similar scrutiny for comments which some deemed "racially insensitive" during his own confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship. What follows is an excerpt from a 2002 article from Sarah Wildman in the New Republic.

Another damaging witness--a black former assistant U.S. Attorney in Alabama named Thomas Figures--testified that, during a 1981 murder investigation involving the Ku Klux Klan, Sessions was heard by several colleagues commenting that he "used to think they [the Klan] were OK" until he found out some of them were "pot smokers." Sessions claimed the comment was clearly said in jest. Figures didn't see it that way. Sessions, he said, had called him "boy" and, after overhearing him chastise a secretary, warned him to "be careful what you say to white folks." Figures echoed Hebert's claims, saying he too had heard Sessions call various civil rights organizations, including the National Council of Churches and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, "un-American." Sessions denied the accusations but again admitted to frequently joking in an off-color sort of way. In his defense, 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.

During his nomination hearings, Sessions was opposed by the NAACP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, and other civil rights groups. Senator Denton clung peevishly to his favored nominee until the bitter end, calling Sessions a "victim of a political conspiracy." The Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee finally voted ten to eight against sending Sessions to the Senate floor. The decisive vote was cast by the other senator from Alabama, Democrat Howell Heflin, a former Alabama Supreme Court justice, who said, "[M]y duty to the justice system is greater than any duty to any one individual."

Now sitting on the other side of the table, Senator Sessions might have felt empathy for someone accused of a similar alleged transgression. Instead, he chose to grill Judge Sotomayor, lecturing her as if his own record on the subject was clean. And why not? We all know empathy is not part of the GOP lexicon.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez


A "Gotcha" for Senator Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions

Adding to the cynicism of Senator Jeff Sessions pointed questioning of Judge Sotomayor's alleged "racist" comments during her confirmation hearings is a bit of history about the Senator himself. It seems much of the Senator's ire could be based on the fact Mr. Sessions was himself rejected as a federal judge for ... wait for it ... being racially insensitive. Yes, here is an excerpt from a column by Sarah Wildman in the New Republic with more details:

Sessions was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. The year before his nomination to federal court, he had unsuccessfully prosecuted three civil rights workers--including Albert Turner, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr.--on a tenuous case of voter fraud. The three had been working in the "Black Belt" counties of Alabama, which, after years of voting white, had begun to swing toward black candidates as voter registration drives brought in more black voters. Sessions's focus on these counties to the exclusion of others caused an uproar among civil rights leaders, especially after hours of interrogating black absentee voters produced only 14 allegedly tampered ballots out of more than 1.7 million cast in the state in the 1984 election. The activists, known as the Marion Three, were acquitted in four hours and became a cause celebre. Civil rights groups charged that Sessions had been looking for voter fraud in the black community and overlooking the same violations among whites, at least partly to help reelect his friend Senator Denton.

On its own, the case might not have been enough to stain Sessions with the taint of racism, but there was more. 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 labeled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored 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. Sessions acknowledged making many of the statements attributed to him but claimed that most of the time he had been joking, saying he was sometimes "loose with [his] tongue." He further admitted to calling the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a "piece of intrusive legislation," a phrase he stood behind even in his confirmation hearings.

More on Senator Sessions in columns to follow.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez