Columns

African-American Lawmakers Testify Against Sessions, Say He's No 'Champion of Justice'

Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), left, and John Lewis, (D-Ga.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) testify at the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) on Jan. 11, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), in a departure from customary practice, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee today to urge lawmakers to reject the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, insisting he has failed to display the necessary empathy for civil rights.

“Sen. Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requisite of the job – to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights and justice for all of our citizens,” Booker testified during the second day of Sessions’ confirmation hearing. “In fact, at numerous times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions.”

Booker told panel members that Sessions’ record establishes that “we cannot count on him to support state and national efforts toward bringing justice to a justice system that people on both sides of the aisle readily admit is biased against the poor, drug addicted, mentally ill and people of color.” An attorney general, he said, “must be willing to continue the hallowed tradition in our country of fighting for justice for all, for equal justice, and for civil rights.”

“The next attorney general must bring hope and healing to our country and this demands a more courageous empathy than Senator Sessions’ record demonstrates,” Booker said. “Challenges of race in America cannot be addressed if we refuse to confront them. Persistent biases cannot be defeated unless we combat them.”

Booker’s statement marked the first time a sitting senator has appeared at a confirmation hearing to testify against a Senate colleague nominated for a cabinet position. The Senate generally is considered a collegial place where deference is paid to fellow lawmakers but Booker, an African-American whose family participated in the Civil Rights movement, said he could not stand idly by.

“I know that some of my colleagues are unhappy that I’m breaking with Senate tradition to testify against the nomination of one of my colleagues,” Booker said. “But I believe, like perhaps all of my colleagues, that in the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country.”

Booker wasn’t alone in questioning Sessions’ civil rights record. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of that movement, told the committee that too many questions remain regarding the nominee’s commitment to equal justice.

“If we are to govern this nation justly, we must protect progress at every turn, not elevate those who question the necessity of progress itself,” Lewis said. “The attorney general is expected to be a champion of justice for all people.

They fight to ensure that every person – white, African-American, Latino, Asian or Native American – will be allowed to participate in the democratic process and that every person will be afforded equal protection under the law.”

When faced with a challenge, Lewis said, Sessions has “frequently chosen to stand on the wrong side of history.”

“As the entire world watches, I ask the members of this committee to look deep within and ask whether we can take that chance with the highest law enforcement official in our country,” he said.

Sessions’ civil rights record has long been a subject of debate. He was nominated for a federal judgeship in 1986 by former President Reagan but was rejected by the Senate for allegedly making racially insensitive remarks. One lawyer, for instance, accused him of referring to the NAACP as “un-American.”

Critics, like Booker and Lewis, maintain his voting record in the Senate, where he has served for 20 years, supports those claims of insensitivity. But during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Sessions took the opportunity to proclaim that “the caricature that was created of me was not accurate.”

“I abhor the Klan and its hateful ideology,” Sessions said. “I never declared the NAACP was un-American.”

Sessions told lawmakers, “I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters. I have witnessed it. We must continue to move forward and never back.”

A number of other witnesses leapt to Sessions’ defense and testified that he is well-qualified for the job. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served during the final two years of the President George W. Bush administration, said he believes Sessions “will serve with distinction.”

“Broadly, I believe he understands that the principal role of the Justice Department is to help protect the safety of the American people from any international or domestic threat that would interfere with their ability to enjoy the freedoms our Constitution guarantees,” Mukasey said. “To that end, I believe he will focus the department’s energies on priorities that will include strengthening our ability to combat Islamist terrorism, both at home and overseas. I believe he will also focus on partnering with state and local law enforcement agencies to combat drug gangs, both domestic and international, that are a source of much of the violence that afflicts our cities.”

Mukasey said he was “saddened to see the scurrilous attacks on Sen. Sessions’ character that have been unleashed since his nomination was proposed.”

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

William Smith, former chief counsel for the Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, an African-American, said it was Sessions who actively recruited him to join the committee staff and that the lawmaker “respected my point of view and me.’’

“He never said anything derogatory and never provided any sense that he had any racial animus,” Smith said. Instead, he found that Sessions had become “more of a friend and confidant than a boss.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee chairman, said he is convinced that Sessions is “the right choice to serve as our nation’s chief law enforcement officer at this critical time.”

Grassley noted that Sessions was repeatedly asked on Tuesday if he would enforce the law, even if he disagreed with it as a policy matter.

“Time and time again, Sen. Sessions reaffirmed his commitment to this fundamental principle. As attorney general of the United States his solemn duties are to the Constitution, and to enforce the laws duly enacted,” he said. “His fundamental commitment to the rule of law emerged as a central theme in our discussion yesterday.”