In the third round of questioning today, Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee have zeroed in on Jeff Sessions’s civil-rights record and his 1986 Senate confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship, one in which he was dogged by allegations of racism. As my colleague Adam Serwer wrote in November:
In his 1986 confirmation hearing, witnesses testified that Sessions referred to a black attorney as “boy,” described the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive,” attacked the NAACP and ACLU as “un-American” for “forcing civil rights down the throats of people,” joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was ok until he found out they smoked marijuana, and referred to a white attorney who took on voting-rights cases as a “traitor to his race.” As Ryan J. Reilly reported, Sessions also faced allegations that he referred to a Democratic official in Alabama as a nigger.
On Tuesday, Senators Chris Coons and Richard Blumenthal prodded him on his views on voting rights and his statements in the earlier hearing that the Voting Rights Act was “intrusive.” “As I said in the hearing in 1986, I was asked about it being ‘intrusive,’” Sessions responded, but “I say then and I say now: It was necessary that the act be intrusive.” According to his defense of his statements at the 1986 hearing, Sessions was merely detailing the necessary structure of a law that was designed to intervene in such a virulently and openly racist society as the South in the civil-rights era.
There is more material, however, emerging from that decades-old hearing that could be damaging to Sessions’s claim to being a champion of civil rights. Coretta Scott King offered testimony against him at the time, via a letter that was never actually submitted to the congressional record by then-Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond. That missive was apparently a key part of the successful campaign to derail Sessions’s nomination, though its contents were never fully revealed.
As Tuesday’s hearing proceeded on the Hill, The Washington Post released the full text of the letter to the public for the first time. King closes with a rather strong condemnation of Sessions’s civil-rights record:
I do not believe Jefferson Sessions possesses the requisite judgment, competence and sensitivity to the rights guaranteed by the federal civil rights laws to qualify for appointment to the federal district court. Based on his record, I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made everywhere toward fulfilling my husband’s dream that he envisioned over twenty years ago. I therefore urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to deny his confirmation.