President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general will almost certainly dredge up allegations of racism and voter suppression that sunk his 1986 nomination for a federal judgeship.
Those allegations are laid bare in the 670-page transcript of the hearings obtained by VICE News and posted in its entirety below.
Three decades ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee — in Republican hands and chaired by Strom Thurmond — rejected Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench, only the second time such a nominee was rejected by the committee in 49 years.
Joe Biden, then a senator from Delaware and the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that Sessions’ past statements were “inappropriate for someone holding public office.” Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts said Sessions was “a throwback to a shameful era which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past.”
“How any black person would be able to feel they are going to have impartial justice from Mr. Sessions is beyond me,” said Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, Democrat of Ohio.
Among the most disturbing elements of Sessions’ record revealed by the transcript is his behavior as a U.S. Attorney in Alabama, where he prosecuted three black civil rights activists for voter fraud. At least one legislator suggested the prosecution was trying to scare away black voters, an effort news reports from the time suggested would help Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton’s 1986 reelection effort. Denton was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and could help get Sessions confirmed.
“Political analysts have suggested that Denton’s reelection chances would improve if black voters stayed away from the polls next year,” State News Service reported in 1985.
The case became a key topic of the 1986 confirmation hearings. “Given the fact that the reward for the U.S. Attorney who has conducted himself in this fashion [Sessions] is, that his U.S. Senator [Denton] recommends him for appointment to, the Federal judiciary, certainly presents circumstances that lead one to question as to whether the activity that has been going on in Alabama, is politically motivated,” Clarence Mitchell, then the president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, testified before the Senate.
Denton, a Republican, was one of two Alabama senators on the committee considering Sessions’ nomination. The other was Democrat Howard Heflin. Denton ultimately voted for Sessions’ confirmation; Heflin voted against.
Denton said during the hearing that the accusation of a conspiracy to keep blacks away from the polls was a “total misrepresentation” and the kind of rhetoric that “has enslaved [blacks] to some pretty unscrupulous political leaders in the South.” All three men charged by Sessions were eventually acquitted.
Deval Patrick, the defense lawyer for the NAACP in the voter fraud case (and later the governor of Massachusetts), swore in an affidavit that Sessions’ behavior during the 1985 trial led him to conclude that Sessions had “neither the professional acumen nor the judicial temperament necessary and appropriate to the federal bench.”
At trial, according to Patrick’s testimony, Sessions’ assistant questioned witnesses while stealthily displaying a notepad to the jury with “WITNESS LIES” and “LYING” scrawled in big letters. When the assistant was caught, the judge reprimanded her — but Sessions did not. Patrick also suggested that Sessions unsuccessfully tried to move the trial from Selma to Mobile because there were would be fewer blacks in the Mobile jury pool.
LaVon Phillips, a legal assistant in Alabama who discussed voting irregularities with Sessions, is one of the few people involved with the 1985 voter fraud case who is still alive. He defended Sessions against these accusations at the time but when reached by phone Friday declined to comment for this story.
Deval Patrick also declined to comment. Calls to Sessions’ office were not immediately returned.
In addition to the allegations regarding Sessions’ conduct in the voter fraud case, colleagues testified that Sessions called the NAACP and other civil rights groups “un-American” and “Communist-inspired,” and that they wanted to “force civil rights down the throats of people.”
Sessions thought the Ku Klux Klan was fine “until I found out they smoked pot” (a joke, he said), and he called the Voting Rights Act “an intrusive piece of legislation.” When asked why he prosecuted voter fraud cases against blacks only, Sessions said “no evidence was presented to us at the time of fraud by whites, at least anything credible.”
Thomas Figures, a black U.S. Attorney who worked for Sessions, infamously testified that Sessions had referred to him as “boy.”
Congress is often deferential to an incoming president’s nominees for Cabinet positions. But even as Senate Republicans rallied to Sessions’ side early Friday, Senate Democrats made clear that there will be no rubber stamp on this appointment.
Sen. Cory Booker, the only black Democrat currently serving in the Senate, issued a statement Friday saying he is “concerned that [Sessions] possesses ideologies that are in conflict with basic tenets of the Justice Department’s missions.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in her own statement, said that if Trump did not reverse his decision, “then it will fall to the Senate to exercise moral leadership.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that Sessions “is well aware of the thorough vetting he’s about to receive.”