As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, May 04, 2009

The New Republican Point Man On Judiciary

In addition to everything else, Arlen Specter was the Republican ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. His departure necessitated the GOP to choose a replacement, and given seniority issues and the inability for a member to repeat as chair or ranking member, it was not a clear-cut solution. After a weekend of discussion, Jeff Sessions won the job for the time being.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) will take over the ranking member position on the Senate Judiciary Committee after striking a deal with his more senior colleagues over the weekend, sources confirm to The Hill.

Sessions and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) reached the deal that will allow the Alabama Republican to take over for Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), whose departure from the GOP last week left the committee without a ranking member.

Under terms of the deal, Sessions will serve as ranking member until the 112th Congress, when he will take over the ranking member post on the Senate Budget Committee. Current Budget Committee ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) is retiring at the end of the 111th Congress.

Grassley, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, will then become ranking member on the Judiciary Committee.

In the near term, Sessions will hold the ranking member position during the confirmation hearings for Obama's next Supreme Court nominee. Which means that the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee at this important time was denied a federal judgeship by the same committee because of his racist past.

Sessions entered national politics in the mid-'80s not as a politician but as a judicial nominee. Recommended by a fellow Republican from Alabama, then-Senator Jeremiah Denton, Sessions was Ronald Reagan's choice for the U.S. District Court in Alabama in the early spring of 1986. Reagan had gotten cocky by then, as more than 200 of his uberconservative judicial appointees had been rolled out across the country without serious opposition (this was pre-Robert Bork). That is, until the 39-year-old Sessions came up for review.

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 c?l?bre. 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.

It got worse. 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."

Senate Judiciary has jurisdiction over election reform and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, as well as their prosecution of voter fraud cases, by the way.

This is like someone who flunked the driver's test running the DMV.

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