On May 7, 1986, The New York Times reported that some senators were
concerned about Sessions's objectivity. "A number of senators
said today that they felt Mr. Sessions was qualified to be a judge but
questioned whether he would be impartial," the story read.
One of those senators would later become the vice president of the
United States. Joe Biden was the senior Democrat on the committee, and
one of Sessions's most vocal critics. "I consider his statements to be
inappropriate for someone holding public office and seeking a lifetime
appointment to the bench," Biden told The New York Times.
The committee killed his nomination. But it didn't end there. Sessions
went on to become an attorney general in Alabama, where his agenda
continued to attract controversy for its racial preoccupations.
In 2002, The New Republic profiled Sessions in a story entitled, "The
Senator Who's Worse Than Trent Lott." The piece was damning, especially
in its telling of Sessions's failed prosecution of three civil rights
workers for voter fraud in Alabama.
"The year before his nomination to federal court, he had unsuccessfully
prosecuted three civil rights workers--including Albert Turner, a
former aide to Martin Luther King Jr.--on a tenuous case of voter
fraud. The three had been working in the 'Black Belt' counties of
Alabama, which, after years of voting white, had begun to swing toward
black candidates as voter registration drives brought in more black
voters. Sessions' focus on these counties to the exclusion of others
caused an uproar among civil rights leaders, especially after hours of
interrogating black absentee voters produced only 14 allegedly tampered
ballots out of more than 1.7 million cast in the state in the 1984
This story has disappeared. The Republican Party's central opposition
to the nomination was rooted in the concern that Sotomayor is unable to
be fair or impartial, values that, in the words of Sessions himself,
"are at the core of the American experience." If the GOP was concerned
that its efforts would be undermined by pesky questions about how the senator's own biases might influence his questioning of Sotomayor, they
didn't have to be. This week, nearly every major news organization
failed to recall the senator's long, inconvenient relationship with bias.
Given his history, it's bizarre to watch Jeff Sessions grill Sonia Sotomayor on the finer points of judicial impartiality.
"Aren't you saying there that you expect your background and--and
heritage to influence your decision-making?" Sessions asked the judge
earlier this week, as concerns over bias and "empathy" framed Republicans' questioning.
With a solid Democratic majority, no one expected the hearings to be
groundbreaking. On Sunday, Sessions said he wouldn't try to
derail Sotomayor's nomination, but that the hearing would be an
"educational moment." He was right. Sotomayor is sure to be confirmed
as the next Supreme Court justice of the United States. And we have
learned that, like "empathy," amnesia too can be selective.