When Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his expected confirmation hearing after being tapped to be President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney general, it won’t be his first time in front of that panel.
Two decades ago, Sessions, then a U.S. attorney from Mobile, Ala., appeared before the body as President Ronald Reagan’s nominee for the U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Alabama. The contentious hearing took place over four days, and ended with Sessions unable to overcome allegations of racist remarks and behavior, credited at the time with thwarting his bid.
The accusations came from fellow prosecutors and employees in his office. One, Gerry Hebert, then a trial attorney in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, who worked frequently with Sessions, testified that he told Sessions that a judge had called a white lawyer a “disgrace to his race” because he represented black clients.
“Well, maybe he is,” Sessions allegedly responded.
Sessions' longtime assistant, Thomas Figures, who was black, testified that Sessions repeatedly referred to him as “boy” and said the senator talked about groups like the NAACP being “un-American” and “forc[ing] civil rights down the throats of people.”
Sessions addressed each of these accusations in turn.
He did not deny that he made a comment similar to the one alleged about the lawyer being “a disgrace to his race.”
“I understand that that statement has been made, and I recall a conversation in which that was mentioned and I may have -- I believe the statement was I had said ‘maybe he is,’ and that is really disturbing to me. I suppose -- I do not know why I would have said that, and I certainly do not believe that,” he said, adding that the lawyer in question “is one of the finest lawyers in the country.”
He denied ever calling Figures “boy,” or condoning that type of language in his office.
“‘Boy’ is a reprehensible term to use to describe a black man in the South. Because of the history of that term, I have never used the word ‘boy’ to describe a black, nor would I tolerate it in my office,” he said.
Regarding his comments on the NAACP, he explained them by saying he was only making a very narrow argument.
“The NAACP and other civil rights organizations, when they leave the basic discriminatory questions and start getting into matters such as foreign policy and things of that nature and other political issues and that is probably something I should not have said, but I really did not mean any harm by it,” he said. He also said he liked to stop by Figures' desk and “philosophize.”
The length of the hearing -– roughly 21 hours of testimony -– underscored the complexity of the allegations being discussed. Even some of the committee’s chief witnesses, including Hebert, said they were conflicted in drawing larger conclusions about Sessions’ comments.
“I am troubled by the fact that there is an image based on statements that I have made that Mr. Sessions is a racist. I do no really know whether he is or he is not. I probably ought to know but I do not; I really cannot say,” Hebert said during his testimony. “He has made some comments that show racial insensitivity, but by the same token he has not let whatever philosophy he might have or the comments that he has made affect his ability to do the job as U.S. attorney and to help the Civil Rights Division.”
Despite his tempered criticism, Hebert appears to have a different opinion of Sessions 30 years later, with Sessions now having a longer record to scrutinize. Now the director of voting rights and redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, Hebert offered unqualified criticism of his former colleague’s record on voting rights.
“As Attorney General of Alabama, Sessions prosecuted black citizens on phony charges of 'voter fraud.' Sessions has also supported discriminatory voter ID laws based on the myth of widespread voter fraud, denied a continuing history of discrimination against minority voters in the South, and celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a decision that gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act, a law he will now be sworn to protect and enforce,” Hebert said.
Hebert’s current concerns are echoes of those of the members of the 1986 Senate Judiciary Committee, who voted against Sessions’ confirmation, including then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.
“Although such statements may have been in the privacy of his office or to individuals he considered to be friends and colleagues, they nevertheless are inappropriate for someone already holding a position of public trust and seeking a lifetime - I emphasize lifetime - judicial appointment,” Biden said, adding that he “can’t possibly” support Sessions’ nomination.
Towards the end of the last day of hearings, Sessions appeared to grow exasperated with the accusations being leveled against him. “I am not a racist!” he exclaimed. “I am not insensitive to blacks. I have supported civil rights activity in my State. I have done my job with integrity, equality and fairness for all. I have served well as U.S. attorney. I am proud of that record.”
In the end, the committee voted 10-8 against recommending Sessions to the whole Senate for confirmation as a U.S. District Judge. Reagan withdrew his nomination in July, almost six months to the day after nominating him.
The upcoming confirmation hearing will be, in a way, Round Two of Sessions’ 1986 bout. Four members of the 1986 Judiciary Committee still serve in the Senate: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, now the Majority Leader; Chuck Grassley of Iowa, now the chairman of the committee; Orrin Hatch of Utah, a former chairman; and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the outgoing vice chair.
Leahy was the only current member of the Senate to have voted against Sessions during the first hearing.