Senator Sessions, Judge Sotomayor, And Racism

Senator Sessions, Judge Sotomayor, And Racism
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In all the hoopla over Judge Sonia Sotomayor being nominated to the Supreme Court, there is one interesting side story that the media is largely ignoring. His name is Senator Jeff Sessions, and he is now (after Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic side of the aisle) the ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee (that's "minority" in the sense of Sessions being a Republican in a Democratic Senate, and not... you know, "minority"... since Sessions is a white male). And Sessions, as well as having a long enough term on the committee to be the ranking Republican, also has his own history with confirmation hearings before the same committee. Because he was the first of Ronald Reagan's judicial nominees to be rejected (before Bork, in other words), and he was rejected for perceived racial insensitivity. So it will be very interesting to see how he acts on Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation.

From an article in The New Republic from 2002 (which is worth reading in full, to understand Sessions' unique position on the committee), here is a list of statements attributed to Jeff Sessions during his confirmation battle:

  • Sessions called the NAACP and the ACLU "un-American" and "Communist-inspired." Further said these groups had "forced civil rights down the throats of people."

  • Sessions called a white civil rights lawyer "a disgrace to his race" for litigating voting rights cases.
  • During his confirmation hearing, called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 "a piece of intrusive legislation."
  • Sessions told colleagues that he "used to think [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK," until he discovered some of them were "pot smokers," showing a rather strange set of priorities.
  • A black former assistant U.S. Attorney who worked with Sessions said Sessions had called him "boy," and after hearing him chastise an assumably-white (the story doesn't say) secretary, Sessions told him to "be careful what you say to white folks."
  • Sessions called Charles Pickering, a George W. Bush nominee who had in 1959 written a paper defending Mississippi's anti-miscegenation law, "a leader for racial harmony," and "courageous."
  • Sessions also had a history of focusing like a laser beam on black voting fraud (while completely ignoring white voting fraud -- this in the Southern District of Alabama), which led him to prosecute "the Marion Three" for 14 ballots allegedly tampered with out of a total of 1.7 million votes cast in 1984. One of the three was a former aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The three were acquitted after the jury spent only four hours deliberating the case.

    Sessions himself has always felt he was railroaded by the Senate Judiciary Committee. To charges of "gross insensitivity" on racial issues, he replied that the committee itself had been insensitive to the rights and reputation of judicial nominees. Sessions said that the statements attributed to him were when he was just joking. And he said, when he gained a seat on the same committee which had earlier rejected him as a judicial nominee, that it was a "great irony."

    Which is why it will be very interesting to see what Sessions has to say during Sotomayor's hearing, and how he will vote. On last week's Meet The Press, he answered moderator David Gregory's question about whether it was appropriate to call Sotomayor a racist and compare her to David Duke (but failed to mention Tom Tancredo comparing her to a member of the KKK, which Pat Leahy had to bring up later):

    I don't think I'm going to use any such words as that. I read her speech. I'm troubled by her speech. I think she has an opportunity to explain that. And I don't think we -- that I'm going to use such loaded words. People on the outside can say what they choose to say.

    Gregory also never mentions Sessions' history with the committee, and Sessions' own failed nomination as a judge (Gregory didn't do his homework, apparently). Later, when pressed on the point of whether conservatives should be using such terms to describe Sotomayor, Sessions answered:

    I would prefer that they not, but people have a free right to speak and say what they want and make the analogies that they want. This is an important thing. We should not demagogue race. It's an important issue in our culture and our country. We need to handle it with respect that it deserves and the care that it deserves.

    Now, in Sessions' defense, most of what he had to say was pretty mild when stacked up against the rantings of fellow Republicans Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh and Tom Tancredo. He even had some words of praise for Sotomayor.

    But Sessions repeatedly called Sonia Sotomayor's use of the word "better" (which I wrote about yesterday) "troubling." But what's more troubling to me is that the leading Republican on the committee which will hold her confirmation hearing has made outright racist statements in the past. Whether you believe Sotomayor's comment was "racist" or not, it's pretty hard to parse as a "joke" a white man calling a black colleague "boy" in Alabama, and telling him "be careful what you say to white folks." Or saying that -- as long as they weren't getting high, of course -- the KKK was "OK."

    Which I find troubling, myself. The mainstream media either (1) hasn't done the most basic of research on Sessions, or (2) is deliberately ignoring this side of the story. And either one of those is just as troubling as Sessions' own statements.

    Chris Weigant blogs at:

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