WASHINGTON ― Thirty years ago, in 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee shot down President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to be a federal judge over allegations he made racist comments and called civil rights groups “un-American.” On Friday, President-elect Donald Trump offered Sessions the position of attorney general of the United States.
Sessions, now a 69-year-old senator from Alabama, would serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official if confirmed by his fellow members of the Senate. Sessions, an early Trump backer, is an immigration hard-liner who has been in the Senate since 1997 and previously served as attorney general for the state of Alabama.
Back in the mid-1980s, when Sessions was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Reagan nominated him to become a federal judge. But during the nomination process, allegations emerged that Sessions had called a black attorney “boy”; that he suggested a white civil rights lawyer was a race traitor; that he joked he liked the Ku Klux Klan until he found out they smoked marijuana; and that he referred to civil rights groups as “un-American” organizations trying to “force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them.”
Senators also pressed Sessions on his failed prosecution of black political activists who were helping elderly black voters with absentee ballots. Sessions brought a case against Albert Turner, who walked behind Martin Luther King Jr. during the march in Selma, Alabama, and Turner’s wife. They were found not guilty on all counts.
After his judicial nomination was defeated, Sessions continued on as U.S. attorney for several years, until the end of the George H.W. Bush administration.
Trump said in a statement on Friday that Sessions was a “world-class legal mind and considered a truly great Attorney General and U.S. Attorney in the state of Alabama.” Trump said it was an honor to nominate Sessions to be the top law enforcement official in the United States.
Sessions said he was “humbled” to be nominated by Trump.
“My previous 15 years working in the Department of Justice were extraordinarily fulfilling. I love the Department, its people and its mission. I can think of no greater honor than to lead them,” Sessions said. “With the support of my Senate colleagues, I will give all my strength to advance the Department’s highest ideals. I enthusiastically embrace President-elect Trump’s vision for ‘one America,’ and his commitment to equal justice under law. I look forward to fulfilling my duties with an unwavering dedication to fairness and impartiality.”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) had issued a statement Thursday night that said Sessions had the necessary experience to be the nation’s top law enforcement official.
“Not only would Jeff bring integrity and immense expertise to the role of Attorney General due to his decades of experience in the legal field and an impressive tenure on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Jeff has also gained the deep respect of his Senate colleagues for his commitment to upholding the rule of law,” Shelby said. “My wife Annette and I are proud of Jeff’s accomplishments and wish him and his wife Mary the very best during this exciting transition.”
Trump’s nomination is already facing heavy opposition from civil rights organizations. Republicans will have control of the Senate 52-48 (including Sessions), so their margin for error is not great. If Sessions doesn’t pick up any Democratic support, he could not afford to lose any Republican backers to maintain the simple majority he needs for confirmation.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, who voted against Sessions in 1986, said Friday that his Senate colleague deserves “a full and fair process” and that the “American people deserve to learn about Senator Sessions’ record” at a hearing. He said he had “significant disagreements” with Sessions on civil rights and voting rights, as well as immigration and criminal justice issues.
“The Attorney General serves as the chief law enforcement officer in the country. The Attorney General must be independent and fair. The Attorney General must be deeply committed to the rule of law and must ensure that all people are treated equally before the law,” Leahy said in a statement. “This means that he or she is also the chief protector of civil rights and civil liberties for everyone in our Nation. That has never been more important than in this moment, when hate crimes have spiked across the country, especially against Muslim and LGBTQ Americans. And when we have a President-elect who has proposed religious tests, a return to torture, and a deportation force that threatens to remove millions of immigrants.”
As attorney general, Sessions would likely exercise broad influence over U.S. law enforcement, immigration policy and, specifically, how the nation’s immigration laws are enforced.
Trump has repeatedly promised to deport millions of undocumented residents, a position that dovetails with Sessions’ fervent opposition to any immigration reform. Sessions is especially opposed to proposals that could be seen as a “path to citizenship” for some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are currently living and working in the United States.
Sessions, who attended all-white segregated schools, was named for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, and Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who was “instrumental” in the adoption of the Confederate battle flag. He spoke earlier this year about his regrets about not getting involved in the civil rights movement as a young adult.
“As a child and a teenager, I saw evidence of discrimination virtually every day,” Sessions said. “Certainly I feel like I should have stepped forward more and been a leader and a more positive force in the great events that were occurring.”
But by the time Sessions was a top federal prosecutor, he apparently thought civil rights progress had gone far enough, as he explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986. Sessions had been asked to explain why he had reportedly used phrases like “un-American” to describe groups like the ACLU and NAACP.
“I made the comment that the fundamental legal barriers to minorities had been knocked down, and that in many areas blacks dominate the political area, and that when the civil rights organizations or the ACLU participate in asking for things beyond what they are justified in asking, they do more harm than good,” Sessions testified.
Sessions’ name has emerged as the Department of Justice begins working with the Trump transition team.
“The Justice Department is now in contact with the President-elect’s transition representatives and will begin to brief those individuals. We are fully prepared to assist the incoming transition team,” a Justice Department spokesperson said in a statement. “As the President has said, we are committed to a smooth and successful transition.”