President-elect Trump announced that he plans to nominate Senator Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General, and for those who have concerns—or outright opposition—to this pick, recent headlines have been daunting: “Sessions looks like a lock for confirmation.” “Senate Democrats Can’t Stop Sessions, So How Much Will They Fight?”
To some extent, I understand this analysis: Senate Democrats can not stop this nomination unless Republicans join them, and based on the public statements of support so far, that doesn’t seem likely.
Then again, I imagine this was also the analysis in 1986, when a Republican-controlled Senate considered Sessions’ nomination to the district court—before the Senate Judiciary Committee held two sets of hearings. Before Senator Howell Heflin (also of Alabama) withdrew his support, stating “fairness and impartiality go to the very heart of our justice system...as long as I have reasonable doubts, my conscience is not clear, and I must vote no.” Before two Republicans joined every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee in opposing his nomination. Before the Judiciary Committee rejected a lower court nomination for the first time in nearly half a century.
What happened in 1986 could happen again today: Senators could diligently review the record and vote their conscience.
Some may dismiss this as quaint or naïve, but we absolutely have to hold our Senators to this standard and to demand nothing less—especially with the Department of Justice at stake. Civil rights, immigrant rights, and women’s rights are at stake. Disability rights, workers’ rights, and LGBT rights are at stake. Civil liberties, criminal justice, and the environment are at stake.
If this doesn’t require an open mind, thoughtful deliberation, and a vote free from politics and party, then nothing does.
This vote also must be free from considering Senator Sessions’ likability. He seems well-liked by many of his colleagues, and while this may be enough to establish a solid relationship with them—and maybe even earn some initial support—it is nowhere near enough to earn a final confirmation vote to lead the Department of Justice and shape its enormous impact on our everyday lives.
Senator Heflin’s recognition that “fairness and impartiality go the very heart of our justice system” still rings true today and applies as much to the position of Attorney General as it did to a judgeship.
The headlines this week don’t acknowledge this. They gloss over the reality that Senator Sessions has a record that must be considered and that overwhelmingly, the evidence has not yet been presented.
Before casting a confirmation vote, each Senator must carefully examine Senator Sessions’ record as U.S. Attorney, Alabama Attorney General, and Senator—the policies he has supported and opposed, what he has said, and how he has said it—and determine whether he would be able to “ensure the fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans,” as required by the Department of Justice’s mission statement.
There are many, many concerns regarding Senator Sessions’ views on the rights of all Americans, from civil rights, voting rights, and criminal justice to protections for immigrants, women, and LGBT Americans—and much more.
After considering this record, I am confident that a majority of Senators—as Senator Heflin 30 years ago—will have reasonable doubts, their consciences will not be clear, and they must vote no on Senator Sessions’ nomination.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in politics this year, it’s not to declare an outcome when the contest has barely begun.