Where the first day of Jeff Sessions’ attorney general confirmation hearing focused on what the Alabama senator’s relationship would be with the president if confirmed, the second day focused on his own past.
Sessions, a former Alabama attorney general, has a reputation for being tough on crime, but civil rights advocates testified that his reputation was made on the backs of vulnerable groups. Lawmakers who have worked with him, on the other hand, said they knew a just and fair man.
“We must bend” the arc of the moral universe
The most impassioned pleas against Sessions came at the very end of the day, during a third and final panel that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said was the result of a special request from Sen. Dianne Feinstein. All six men on the panel were African-American. Three came to defend Sessions, and three to denounce him.
“His record indicates that we cannot count on him to support state and national efforts toward bringing justice to the justice system,” Sen. Cory Booker said. Booker, the first sitting senator to testify against a fellow senator during a confirmation hearing, said Sessions’ record shows he won’t protect people of color, women, LGBT communities, immigrants or voting rights.
Booker ended his speech with a call to rally against injustice: “The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve toward justice. We must bend it.”
John Lewis, the Georgia representative and civil rights leader, also gave a passionate speech against Sessions, but he took a more personal approach.
“Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Sen. Sessions’ calls for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then,” said Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 and suffered a skull fracture at the hands of state troopers.
Lewis cautioned against Sessions’ polite demeanor.
“It doesn’t matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you,” he said. “We need someone who’s going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, decried Sessions’ record.
“Simply put, Sen. Sessions has advanced an agenda that will do great harm to African-American citizens and communities,” Richmond said. He also added that having to testify at the very end of the panels “is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus.”
The other three witnesses on the panel defended Sessions. All had worked with him at some point in his career: Two did legal work with him in Alabama and the other, William Smith, served as the first African-American general counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“After 20 years of knowing Sen. Sessions, I have not seen the slightest evidence of racism, because it does not exist,” Smith said. “I know a racist when I see one, and I’ve seen more than one, and Jeff Sessions is not one.”
Civil rights and the “rights to be safe and secure”
The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union were both mentioned on Day 1 of the hearing, specifically because Sessions had called both organizations “un-American” and “Communist-inspired,” as NPR’s Nina Totenberg has reported.
On Day 2, leaders from the two organizations got a chance to respond.
NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks said his organization sees Sessions as “unfit to serve as attorney general.”
“Sen. Sessions’ record reveals a consistent disregard to civil and human rights of vulnerable populations, including the African-Americans, Latinos, women, Muslims, immigrants, the disabled, the LGBT community and others,” Brooks said.
He focused mainly on Sessions’ voting record in the Senate, highlighting Sessions’ votes against the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, among others. He ended by calling on the room to imagine an Attorney General Sessions presiding over “Michael Brown’s Ferguson” or “Freddie Gray’s Baltimore.”
David Cole, the national legal director of the ACLU, asked senators to “painstakingly probe the many serious questions that [Sessions’] actions, words and deeds raise about his commitment to civil rights and civil liberties.”
Cole also highlighted Sessions’ move to charge three black activists with voter fraud when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama in 1985. The case, which argued that the defendants had tampered with absentee ballots, was a factor behind Sessions’ rejection from a federal judgeship in 1986.
At one point, Cole specifically brought up Sessions’ defense of Trump’s infamous comments about grabbing women’s genitals, caught on a hot microphone. At the time, Sessions said he wasn’t sure that action could be characterized as sexual assault. (In Tuesday’s hearing, Sessions said “clearly it would be” sexual assault.)
A survivor of sexual assault who testified on Wednesday said Sessions had minimized Trump’s comments and that made her concerned that victims may not want to come forward in the future.
But, like the three who defended Sessions during the final panel, others stepped forward throughout the day to vouch for Sessions’ moral character.
Former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said he has “no hesitation” that Sessions is prepared for the job before him: upholding the law and protecting Americans. Former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson agreed.
“Of all our important civil rights, the rights to be safe and secure in one’s own home and neighborhood is perhaps the most important,” Thompson said.