In one of those unintentionally hilarious flukes on Capitol Hill, Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and hence the designated quarterback of the GOP response to President Obama’s upcoming Supreme Court nomination. Sessions warned this morning on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that a Republican filibuster is possible if Obama nominates someone who is “outside the mainstream.” Sessions will obviously play a key role in deciding what constitutes the mainstream.
What’s amusing is that Sessions himself was rejected by the Judiciary Committee for a federal district judgeship back in 1986 because his own views and record were so far outside the mainstream. For the committee to reject a president’s nominee was fairly unusual at the time. For a Republican-controlled committee to reject Ronald Reagan’s nominee was a front-page shocker.
One of the best quick summaries of Sessions’ quirks is this one from Wikipedia:
At Sessions’ confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, four Department of Justice lawyers who had worked with Sessions testified that he had made several racist statements. One of those lawyers, J. Gerald Hebert, testified that Sessions had referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as “un-American” and “Communist-inspired” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.” Hebert said that Sessions had a tendency to “pop off” on such topics frequently and had once called a white civil rights lawyer who dealt with voting rights suits a “disgrace to his race.” Thomas Figures, a black Assistant U.S. Attorney, testified that Sessions said he thought the Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Figures also testified that on one occasion, when the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division sent the office instructions to investigate a case that Sessions had tried to close, Figures and Sessions “had a very spirited discussion regarding how the Hodge case should then be handled; in the course of that argument, Mr. Sessions threw the file on a table, and remarked, ‘I wish I could decline on all of them,’” by which Figures said Sessions meant civil rights cases generally. After becoming Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, Sessions was asked in an interview about his civil rights record as a U.S Attorney. He denied that he had not sufficiently pursued civil rights cases, saying that “when I was [a U.S. Attorney], I signed 10 pleadings attacking segregation or the remnants of segregation, where we as part of the Department of Justice, we sought desegregation remedies.” Figures also said that Sessions had called him “boy.” He also testified that “Mr. Sessions admonished me to ‘be careful what you say to white folks.’” Sessions responded to the testimony by denying the allegations, saying his remarks were taken out of context or meant in jest, and also stating that groups could be considered un-American when “they involve themselves in un-American positions” in foreign policy. Sessions said during testimony that he considered the Klan to be “a force for hatred and bigotry.” In regards to the marijuana quote, Sessions said the comment was a joke but apologized. In response to a question from Joe Biden on whether he had called the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, Sessions replied “I’m often loose with my tongue. I may have said something about the NAACP being un-American or Communist, but I meant no harm by it.”
Sessions was in his best form last year, during Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. He attacked her for her association with the “radical” Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, fearing her personal and ethnic loyalties would affect her rulings. In the same hearings he also chastised her for voting differently from another judge of Puerto Rican judge origin, the very conservative Jose Cabranes, on a case where her vote would have given Cabranes a majority.
Sessions apparently hasn’t lost any of his confidence that he knows what’s on America’s mind and what isn’t. Explaining this morning what might provoke a filibuster, he said:
“If we have a nominee that evidences a philosophy of judges know best, that they can amend the Constitution by saying it has evolved, and effectuate agendas, then we’re going to have a big fight about that because the American people don’t want that,” Sessions said.
Here’s a bit of history that compounds the fortuitous synchronicity of the upcoming fight: Sessions became the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee one year ago, after incumbent Arlen Specter, the only Jewish Republican in the Senate, became a Democrat. Back in 1986, Specter was one of the two Republicans (with Charles Mathias of Maryland) to vote against confirming Sessions for the federal bench. There were 10 Republicans and eight Democrats on the committee; the vote to reject Sessios was 10-8.
Specter then switched sides (not for the last time) and voted to send Sessions’ nomination to the Senate floor, despite the committee’s failure to recommend. That vote was 9-9.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).