Sen. Cory Booker broke with Senate norms on Wednesday and launched an unprecedented attack against the nomination of his colleague Jeff Sessions as attorney general, testifying under oath that the Alabama senator has demonstrated a “hostility” against upholding equal rights for the “marginalized, most degraded, [and] most unfortunate” of Americans.
The New Jersey senator, speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the second day of Sessions’ confirmation hearing, argued it was “not enough” for an attorney general to commit to supporting law and order, but not to “equal rights and justice for all.” He also expressed skepticism that Sessions would be able to set aside his personal politics in the interest of equality.
Booker was joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus in his opposition to Sessions’ nomination, including civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
Booker argued that Sessions’ record suggests he would not seek to protect the rights of LGBT Americans, uphold voting rights, or protect “immigrants and affirm their human dignity.”
“Numerous times he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions,” Booker said.
Booker also argued that Sessions, 70, has not recognized and would therefore not lead the “urgently needed change” in the criminal justice system, at a time when the head of the FBI has spoken out about the need to address implicit bias in policing, and the last two attorney generals have worked to to address “systemic abuses in police departments.”
“The next attorney general must bring hope and healing to this country,” Booker said. “This demands a more courageous empathy than his record demonstrates.”
Booker’s decision to testify against Sessions was unprecedented: It made him the first sitting senator to testify against a colleague during a Senate confirmation for a presidential Cabinet position. He said it was not a decision he’d made lightly but that “conscience and country” were more important than Senate norms.
Booker’s testimony was followed by that of Willie Huntley, a veteran black lawyer from Alabama, who said he worked alongside Sessions as assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama and found no trace of racial animosity. Huntley recalls his surprise when Sessions, then attorney general for Alabama’s Southern District, offered to join him in Mobile as assistant attorney general. Huntley said he was reluctant at first, because he had heard allegations that Sessions harbored racial bias. He said he’d worked with Sessions at different points in his career, and that he’d never seen evidence that Sessions was prejudiced or lacked interest in upholding civil rights.
Rep. Lewis, meanwhile, drew upon his own experiences fighting for civil rights in the South, and communicated fears that Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general would mean going back on “decades of progress and the return to the dark past.”
“Those committed to equal justice wonder whether when Senator Sessions calls for law and order, whether it would mean today what it meant in Alabama,” Lewis said.
Lewis, who was born in rural Alabama in the 1950s, said he grew up not far from where Sessions was raised. During his youth, there was “no way to escape or deny the chokehold of racial hate,” Lewis said. “I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and discrimination.”
Since then, Lewis said, “we’ve made progress,” but “we’re not there yet.” There are, Lewis said, “forces that want to take us back to another place.” “We don’t want to go back,” Lewis said. “We want to go forward.”
“It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile,” Lewis added, “But we need someone who’s gonna stand up, speak up, speak out, for the people that need help, the people who have been discriminated against.”