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Two Decades After His Rejection from Federal Bench for Racial Bias, Sen. Jeff Sessions Leads GOP Opposition to Sotomayor

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Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is leading the charge against Sotomayor becoming the nation’s first Latina Supreme Court justice. Twenty-three years ago, the Senate rejected Sessions’ confirmation to the federal bench, in part because he called the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to the record of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who’s leading the charge against Judge Sotomayor.

In Monday’s hearing, Sessions warned of a, quote, “brave new world, where words have no true meaning” and “a judge is free to push his or her own political and social agenda.”

Well, Sessions has recently become the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, after Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter left the Republican Party. Sessions’ key position on the committee is remarkable, considering his own history. Twenty-three years ago, Sessions was in the seat of the nominee. President Ronald Reagan had nominated Jeff Sessions to be a US district judge in 1986. At that time, Reagan had already appointed some 200 judges throughout the federal system, and Republicans held the majority on committee.

But Sessions became only the second man in fifty years to not be recommended for confirmation. Two Republicans, including Arlen Specter, voted against him. His fellow senator from Alabama, Howell Heflin, also voted against him, citing, quote, “reasonable doubts” over Sessions’ ability to be “fair and impartial.”

Sessions once described the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union as “un-American” and “Communist-inspired” because they, quote, “forced civil rights down the throats of people.” Critics also testified they had once heard Sessions say he admired the Ku Klux Klan.

This is an archival news clip from 1986 with Bob Schieffer of CBS News reporting on the Senate’s rejection of Sessions as a federal judge.

    SENATOR: And the vote is ten-to-eight against him.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: It was a rare occurrence at the Capitol. Only once before in the last forty-nine years had the Senate Judiciary Committee formally turned down a presidential nominee for the federal bench. In Mobile, Sessions was stoic.

    JEFF SESSIONS: The vote has been taken. The matter is over. I accept the vote of the Judiciary Committee, intend to continue with my work.

    BOB SCHIEFFER: Sessions has been a controversial US attorney in Alabama whom civil rights advocates have accused of being insensitive to blacks. The liberal People for the American Way group launched an intense campaign to block him from becoming a federal judge. During the committee hearings, Sessions was accused repeatedly of making derogatory comments about civil rights groups, in some cases characterizing them as un-American and Communist-inspired. He claimed the remarks had been taken out of context.

    SEN. JOE BIDEN: Sessions, at a minimum, was much too flippant with regard to matters relating to race. He joked about it. He made comments about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was, well, Senator Joe Biden, now Vice President, in that report from CBS, Bob Schieffer.

Well, for more on Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, we’re joined now from Washington, DC, by Sarah Wildman, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a regular contributor to the New York Times and The Guardian of London opinion pages. In 2002 she wrote a critical profile of Sessions for The New Republic called “Closed Sessions.” Earlier this year she wrote a piece for the British Guardian on Sessions’ new role as ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee called “Sessions’s Chequered Past.”

Sarah Wildman, welcome to Democracy Now! What is Sessions’ checkered past, if you could talk more about it?

SARAH WILDMAN: Thanks for having me, Amy.

Well, as you described, Sessions was a US attorney in 1986 when Reagan appointed him to the US District Court of Alabama. He, at the time, had been at the helm of a voting scandal in Alabama, where he had charged three civil rights leaders with voting fraud, that is, falsifying absentee ballots, you know, faking various voters. And after investigation, they were all acquitted. It was called the Marion Three. One of them, Albert Turner, had been an aide to Martin Luther King, Jr. And that was sort of the tip of the iceberg about Jeff Sessions.

What had happened was, he had a history of both comments and actions that appeared to be racist. Whether they were or not is — you know, to speak to the former President Bush, I can’t speak into his heart, but he had a history of comments. For example, he called the KKK something he had once admired, except that he had learned that they were pot smokers. He used to say things that were jokes. He called a white civil rights lawyer a traitor to his race. He was said, during his confirmation hearings, to have called a black assistant attorney general — assistant attorney to the state of Alabama “boy” in a derogatory manner towards African Americans.

After he failed to be appointed, he then led another voting rights investigation, which was again overturned in the early ’90s, when he was the attorney general of Alabama. He was again and again accused of looking into the voting fraud among blacks in the state but not among whites. He was accused of not looking into the church burnings that crossed the state of Alabama in the early ’90s.

And all of these things led to a record which people have said, at best, was insensitive to race. In fact, Senator Kennedy, who was on the Judiciary Committee at the time, as now, said he was grossly insensitive to race and he should not have been appointed. So, this was the beginning of the problems for Sessions.

And when I wrote the piece in 2002, we had just had a moment where Trent Lott had said that Strom Thurmond should have been more successful in his run for presidency in 1948, which, of course, was at the helm of a segregationist party. And it kind of cracked open what was left of segregationist Republican ideologies. And Sessions came up just behind Trent Lott as one of the more insensitive to race members of his party.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, he did become a senator.

SARAH WILDMAN: And yet, he did become senator. He did become attorney general first and then senator. And then, as senator, I think what’s most interesting is that while his record on race has not been — there’s nothing really to talk about after the ’80s and early ’90s, when he left — when he became — when he came to the national stage.

What’s interesting now, though, is that he has been at the helm of anti-immigration efforts. In fact, he has called any efforts towards amnesty “terrorist assistance.” He has been praised by some of the most far right-wing groups, groups like FAIR, which have been called “associated with white supremacists.” And what’s interesting about that is that, of course, I would in no way call Sessions a white supremacist — I’m not qualified to do so; I don’t know what his affiliation is with that — but his association with that is far more connected than anything that Sotomayor has been connected towards in terms of ultraliberal thinking. Sessions has been far more connected to everything extremely conservative, very anti-immigration, and has never repudiated those statements. In fact, he upheld the fact that he said the NAACP was un-American and Communist-inspired. He said that those things could be true depending on how you looked at the organizations and depending on what their positions were on foreign policy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, when he was attorney general, I remember covering him, what was it, something like thirteen years ago. It was the time of the rash of church burnings, black church burnings across the South. Can you talk about what he did as attorney general, both in terms of continuing this issue of, quote, “voter fraud” and then to the church burnings?

SARAH WILDMAN: Well, he launched an investigation into absentee ballots in what’s called the “Black Belt” of Alabama. Traditionally, Alabama had a very, very depressed black voter turnout, partly because voters hadn’t been registered to vote. And then, beginning in the ’80s, that registration began to change, and you saw — started to see up to 80 percent of voter turnout in the black counties, which are also traditionally quite poor. You also have an elderly population that has to vote absentee. And he began an investigation into those, first in the ’80s and then again in the early ’90s.

And what was striking to some of the reverends of the churches that had been victims of arson in the early ’90s — this is ’93, ’94, we’re talking about — was that they thought the FBI, prompted by Sessions, was looking more into allegations of voter fraud than they were into the church burnings. And they were not able to turn up incidents of voter fraud. In the ’80s, 1.7 million votes were looked at, and fourteen were allegedly tampered, and even those were not proved.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, I don’t know if you’re still with us, but I was wondering if you could talk about the interaction. I know today, number two, day number two for the confirmation hearing for Sonia Sotomayor, there should be some fireworks.

I guess Juan has had to leave us. But let me put that question then to Jenny Rivera, as we hear this review of the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions, his role in these hearings.

JENNY RIVERA: Well, history has a strange way of working its way through, huh? Someone who did not, as you mentioned — was not able to become a judge as a result of statements, as a result of apparent connections and so forth, and real concerns and doubts about his ability not just to be impartial, but whether or not indeed he holds some racist ideology near and clear to his heart. So history is working its way through.

He has said he will ask about her impartiality. He said he will not support anyone who apparently decides based on ethnic affinity and so forth. And the judge’s record is very clear. She is a moderate judge. She has voted, in fact, with the majority of the Second Circuit, I think 95 percent of the time or so forth. We have a wonderful report by the Brennan Center on this, an empirical data set on this. So you’re not going to find that in her record, so you’re left with these statements, and she’s been very clear that she decides based on the rule of law.

Her affiliation with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, you know, that attack on her sitting on that board for, I think it was, twelve years is, as I will say as not only a member of our society but as a lawyer, extremely troubling. You know, lawyers are encouraged to find a way to work, whether it’s pro bono or otherwise, on issues that help people who are indigent, but help create access and help to level the playing field. And so, those cases and the work of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has always been about access. So, although I anticipate that there may very well be questions related to that work, as well as her judicial record while on the bench, the reality is that that shouldn’t be an obstacle, and we should view that, again, as we heard some of the senators mention yesterday, as part of what we, as people in this country, should take pride in, that this attorney, at the beginning of her career, did this pro bono with the hope that the cases would end up creating access and indeed, I would argue, that the laws that were used during that time, both federal and state, anticipated exactly that kind of litigation, work that was focusing on anti-discrimination cases, opening up not only the courtroom, but the franchise, our schools and, you know, housing throughout the country, to all people, but especially Latinos and Puerto Ricans, who had been denied access for so long.

AMY GOODMAN: Jenny Rivera, I want to thank you for being with us, professor at the CUNY School of Law —-

JENNY RIVERA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —- here in New York, founding director of its Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality, served as a law clerk for the Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. I also want to thank Sarah Wildman for being with us, senior correspondent for The American Prospect, regular contributor to the op-ed pages of The Guardian in London, the New York Times here in the United States, has written pieces on Jeff Sessions, the latest, “Jeff Sessions’s Chequered Past,” and we will link to it at democracynow.org.

When we come back, an interesting case of a man who has been freed after sixteen years in prison. He was exonerated, and he blames Sonia Sotomayor for not taking up his appeal. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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