The Senate Judiciary Committee held confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump's attorney general candidate, Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), on January 10 and 11. Sessions is a long-time fixture in D.C., and most committee members were familiar with his positions, and character.
Testimony from both sides of the aisle praised Sessions' character, though Democrats noted that they do disagree vigorously on some issues.
Sessions is known as the most conservative member of Congress, and most political parties are against Sessions' appointment, in line with heated opposition to the incoming Trump administration. Greens, Democrats, and Libertarians have questioned Sessions' positions on civil rights, immigration, torture, marijuana, and party loyalty over national duty.
Ranking Judiciary member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) opened her comments in the hearing with an ominous replay of the presidential debate where President-elect Trump told Clinton that he would instruct his attorney general to "look into her situation," and prosecute Clinton.
"That is not what the attorney general does." said Feinstein. "An AG does not investigate or prosecute at the request of the President. Nor does the attorney general wear two hats: one as the president's lawyer, and one as the people's lawyer."
Feinstein framed the conflict over Sessions by noting that the hearing was not a judgement on Sessions as a Senator, but as the head of law enforcement:
"As Attorney General, his job will not be to advocate for his beliefs. Rather, the job of the Attorney General is to enforce Federal law -- even if he voted against the law, even if he spoke against it before it passed. Even if he disagrees with the precedent. Most importantly, his job will be to enforce federal law equally -- equally - for all Americans. And this job requires loyalty to the people and the law, not the President."
Sessions' defense rested heavily on adherence to the letter of the law.
Dick Durban (D-Ill.) questioned Sessions about his support to rescind outgoing President Obama's executive order, Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Durban pressed Sessions emotionally about what might happen to nearly 800,000 kids if they were to lose protection under DACA.
Sessions put the issue back onto Congress and adherence to law, saying that he believes immigration needs to be fixed by Congress, that humanitarian issues around immigration need to be addressed, but the first step is to "end illegality." Sessions confirmed that he believes Trump will have legal authority to rescind DACA.
Sessions confirmed without hesitation that he will indeed honor the laws of the land concerning gay rights, Roe v. Wade, and torture.
Pressed further on his views of women's rights and voter rights, Sessions took a stand for states' rights against federal laws. He remarked that his opposition to Roe v. Wade is because it restricts states from making the laws that they want; and that federal voter protection laws were 'intrusive' because they targeted a few specific states, and were not applied nationally.
Asked about enforcing marijuana laws, Sessions again returned to the letter of the law. Federal law prohibits marijuana use. Sessions said:
“The U.S. Congress made the possession of marijuana in every state — and the distribution — an illegal act. If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule.”
Sessions, and other Republicans made it a point to try to dispel characterization of Sessions as racist. Sessions has been haunted by The Marion Three voter rights case, and alleged comments about the NAACP as 'un-American.'
In defense, Sessions clarified that he does not think that the NAACP is categorically un-American. He lauded the organization in the hearing and clarified that his statement was not about the existence of the NAACP as an organization, but of comments of the NAACP that he thought "eroded their moral authority," and might present security risks to the United States.
The New York Times clarified his statement, reporting that Sessions' remarks referred to, "liberal immigration policies and support for the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua."
Sessions defended his involvement in the infamous Marion Three voter rights case by noting that districts had brought the case to him, requiring him to act. He confirmed in his testimony that both the plaintiff and defendant in the case were black Americans.
The Marion Three were voter registration workers in the 60's Civil Rights era. They registered black Americans to vote in an atmosphere of black voter suppression. Many registrants could not read or write, and so needed assistance to fill out the forms. However, altering another person's form was considered voter fraud. The case claimed that the Marion Three illegally altered registration forms, and was sent to Sessions at the state attorney general's office by lower courts. Sessions says it was his job to take the case.
On the second day of Sessions' confirmation hearing, black Americans came to oppose, and defend, Sessions. Most notably, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) broke Senate tradition by testifying against his colleague saying:
"The next attorney general must bring hope and healing to this country, and this demands a more courageous empathy than Sen. Sessions' record demonstrates." Booker suggested that Sessions does not have the character to bend the arc of U.S. history toward justice for all.
Long-time celebrated civil rights activist and representative, John Lewis (D-Ga.) gave testimony against Sessions saying that "we want to go forward, not back."
In defense, former aide to Sessions (who is a black American), William Smith, challenged that Sessions had been grossly characterized by people who "have not spent 10 minutes" with Sessions. Smith lauded Sessions as "a brilliant legal mind, a man of the highest character, and the greatest integrity."
At one point in the hearing, Sessions was asked if he felt discriminated against as racist because of his Southern heritage. Sessions said that coming from the South does carry a caricature of 'racist,' and that characterization of him was more severe because he was from 'the south of the South.'
"It hurt," Sessions said. "I didn't know how to handle it."
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr