Leahy presses as Sessions declares commitment to civil rights

Sessions Leahy
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., takes a photo of Sen. Jeff Sessions ahead of the Alabama Republican’s confirmation hearings to be U.S. attorney general Tuesday. Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate Photo Studio
WASHINGTON — Amid protesters’ shouted accusations of racism and Democrats’ challenges on his civil rights record, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions contended Tuesday that such portrayals of him were a “caricature.”

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee as attorney general promised on his first day of confirmation hearings that if he takes office, he will be fair-minded and compassionate to all Americans.

“As a Southerner, who actually saw discrimination and have no doubt it existed in a systematic and powerful and negative way unto the people … I know that was wrong,” said Sessions, a Republican from Alabama. “I know we need to do better. We can never go back.”

Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary hearing represented a vindication of sort for Sessions, 70, after the committee rejected him for a federal judgeship 30 years ago over concerns that he held racist beliefs.

Now nominated to be the top law enforcement official in the country, Sessions again had to answer for a career questioned by more than 400 civil rights groups. But unlike in 1986, Sessions is expected to be easily confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.

While Sessions looked to escape the charges levied at his 1986 hearing — saying “there was an organized effort to caricature me as something that wasn’t true” — Democrats aggressively challenged him on many issues, chief among them civil rights.

“I care about civil rights. I care about voting rights. I have heard your issues,” Sessions told members of the committee. “I get it.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is the sole carryover on Judiciary from 1986. Having voted against Sessions three decades ago, Leahy didn’t offer any evidence that his position this time would be any different.

Although Leahy relinquished his role as the top Democrat on Judiciary this session to be the ranking member on Appropriations, his questions were still some of the most forceful of the day.

In two rounds of sharp questioning, Leahy’s voiced boomed throughout the Kennedy Caucus Room. When he considered Sessions’ answers unsatisfactory, Leahy bluntly interrupted and repeated his question.

Sessions, in turn, showed unyielding deference to Leahy, referring repeatedly to the Vermont senator by his former title.

“Did I call you Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman? I think I did,” Sessions said, smiling. “You’ve been my chairman many years.”

Sessions Leahy
Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., left, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., confer during a recent Judiciary Committee hearing. Photo courtesy of Leahy’s office
Leahy peppered Sessions on myriad topics and repeatedly pushed him to pledge that, if confirmed, he would uphold and enforce key laws he had not supported as an Alabama senator.

Leahy often got what he wanted out of his longtime colleague.

On surveillance, Leahy asked if Sessions would enforce the USA Freedom Act, a Leahy law banning the bulk collection of phone data by surveillance agencies. Sessions had opposed the legislation.

“I will follow the law, yes, sir,” Sessions responded.

Leahy questioned him over whether he would, as attorney general, have a litmus test on hiring department officials with a history at civil rights organizations.

Sessions — who has railed against past judicial nominees for having “ACLU DNA” — flatly responded, “No.”

Sessions dodged Leahy’s questions regarding whether he agreed with the current Department of Justice policy of not enforcing certain federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized its use.

“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” Sessions said.

Leahy went on to interrogate him as to why he hadn’t supported two laws the Vermont senator introduced aimed at expanding protections for marginalized groups: the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization of 2013 and the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Addressing the VAWA reauthorization, Sessions said he had voted for earlier iterations of the bill. Sessions explained that he voted against Leahy’s 2013 reauthorization in part because it would have allowed outsiders suspected of committing crimes on Native American reservations to be tried in tribal courts.

“None of the non-Indians prosecuted have appealed to federal courts,” Leahy shot back. “Many feel it has made victims on tribal land safer.”

Regarding his opposition to the Shepard bill — which expanded federal investigatory powers and protections to the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities — Sessions said he wasn’t sure at the time that such crimes were prevalent enough to warrant “an expansion of federal law into an area that the federal government has not been historically involved.”

Sessions added that he had suggested a study at the time to see how prevalent such hate crimes were.

“As far as a study, last year the FBI said that LGBT individuals were more likely to be targeted for hate crimes than any other minority group in the country,” Leahy responded. “We can study this forever, but that’s a pretty strong fact.”

FBI data from 2014 show that LGBTQ people are the most frequently targeted, twice as likely to be attacked as African-Americans.

Sessions promised to defend both Leahy laws, if confirmed.

Patrick Leahy
From left: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., during Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearings Tuesday. Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate Photo Studio
In concluding his first round of questioning, Leahy invoked his 2015 resolution — supported by many Republicans — stating that “the United States must not bar individuals from entering into the United States based on their religion.”

“Do you agree with the president-elect that the United States can or should deny entry to all members of a particular religion?” Leahy asked Sessions.

“Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States,” he responded. “I did not want to have a resolution that suggested that that could not be a factor in the vetting process before someone is admitted. But I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States.”

Both Democrats and Republicans questioned Sessions’ independence from Trump and his campaign promises.

In his opening remarks, Sessions promised that his role would not be a “mere rubber stamp” to Trump’s policies.

He also promised to refuse any sort of illegal directive Trump might order, saying one would “have to resign, ultimately, before agreeing to execute a policy that the attorney general believes would be unlawful or unconstitutional.”

Sessions in February became the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump’s candidacy, and he became a top contender for his running-mate.

Sessions acknowledged that his own critical statements on Hillary Clinton throughout the campaign “could place (his) objectivity in question,” and he promised to recuse himself from any potential Justice Department investigation of Clinton.

“We can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute,” he said.

But when Democrats pressed Sessions on whether he would be willing to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Trump or his associates — on everything from alleged conflicts of interest to potential connections to Russian meddling in the presidential election — Sessions was noncommittal.

Sessions Leahy
Sen. Patrick Leahy grilled attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions for more than 20 minutes Tuesday. Photo courtesy of C-SPAN
In his second round of questioning, Leahy criticized Sessions for his initial statements defending Trump after an archived “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump boasting of past instances of groping women surfaced in The Washington Post.

“Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?” Leahy asked curtly.

“Clearly it would be,” Sessions said.

“Thank you,” Leahy responded. “If a sitting president — or any other high federal official — was accused of committing what the president-elect described, in a context in which it could be federally prosecuted, would you be able to prosecute and investigate?”

Sessions promised that, if necessary, he would go forward with such an investigation.

While Sessions pledged independence from Trump, his vision for the office of attorney general fell in line with the president-elect’s campaign theme of restoring law and order to America.

Sessions described a “dangerous trend” of increasing crime, and he promised to go after gun traffickers, drug dealers and terrorists. He also said that law enforcement as a whole has been “unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable action of a few.”

“They believe the political leadership in the country has abandoned them. They felt they have become targets, morale has suffered, and last year, while under intense public criticism, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty increased by 10 percent,” Sessions said.

Police deaths did spike over the last year, although the 2016 casualties remain lower than the average for the last 10 years. Similarly, while crime has spiked in some large cities in the past year, FBI statistics report a 22.3 percent decrease in crime nationally between 2006 and 2015.

A few dozen protesters attended Tuesday’s hearing wearing red clothing and stickers reading “STOP Sessions.” U.S. Capitol Police removed about 10 who interrupted Sessions’ hearing periodically, including two men in Ku Klux Klan regalia who cheered and held signs saying, “Go Jeffie Boy!” and “KKK.”

“You can’t arrest me! I’m white!” one of the protesters shouted while they were carried out of the room.

The committee is to finish the hearings Wednesday. Instead of Sessions testifying, guests have been invited by both parties to speak about the prospect of him as attorney general.

Witnesses include leaders of various civil rights groups as well as Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who in an unprecedented move will become the first senator to testify against a colleague.

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Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is VTDigger’s political reporter. A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news sited dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. Congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Jasper on Twitter @Jasper_Craven

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  • Bill Cheney

    I’ll give Leahy credit for one thing, he knows which end of the camera to look into.

  • Our senator has become an obstructionist and an embarrassment. Heaven for bed he try to do something positive for Vermont.
    Remember the lengths of his self righteous indignation when we were trying to toss out the illegal alien who overstayed his visa? But where is the senator now with helping EB5 visa victims ?

    Hmmm, that’s right, those are crickets you here

  • Leahy: “Do you swear to uphold and enforce federal law?”

    Sessions: “Yes Senator.”

    Leahy: “Can you make an exception for cannabis?”


  • Pam Ladds

    I have not always been Mr Leahy’s staunch supporter but I am so glad he is still in Congress. Thank you for being on the right side of this one!! Sessions, in a position of power, would be a nightmare!

  • Pam Jedlicka

    I was truly embarrassed by the performance of Mr. Leahy and the rest of the swamp creatures ‘down there.’ That Cory Booker is going to testify AGAINST Jeff Sessions (someone he has previously praised!) is a disgusting display of rank partisanship.

  • Deborah Billado

    It is probably very difficult for Mr. Leahy to become part of a minority group again in DC.
    He has perhaps 42 years in Washington which means a real fixture and professional life long political being. It is most difficult to become powerless with so many years. We wish him
    restful moments in his ending years in DC. Lets all hope that lifelong political positions
    are a thing of the past. Lets hope term limits becomes the future.

    • Paul Drayman

      What is it about this tiny state of Vermont that produces some of the most popular, effective and well respected individuals in our national government. Why would we want to, by law, limit such a person from serving and cancel the citizen’s right to select a representative of their choice.
      In this country and state we have free and regular elections, which are essential ingredients to a lasting democracy. If you don’t believe that the system works, then take a look at our new governor, a Republican elected by strong support from both of the major parties.

  • So much talent to draw from. Why must the president-elect scrape the bottom of the cracker barrel?

    • Such a tolerant comment. What would you say if an equally insensitive comment were made about Lynch or Holder?

      • Hmm. Two points. First, my comment is funny, so relax. Second, I understand–from the right’s ceaseless barrage–that political correctness is to be avoided. I’m not interested in getting in a fight, but I really couldn’t care less about the supposed sensitivity of the angry right. So, in that context, consider my comment a written raspberry directed toward your comment.

  • Pete Novick

    Here’s my question for Senator Sessions, and I don’t recall any of the senators pursuing this issue, which, looking to 2018 and 2020 is the fundamental mechanism through which the Republican Party may “legally” build a supermajority across government for a generation or more.

    Senator Sessions, was Shelby County v. Holder correctly decided, and are you satisfied with the various state voting rights initiatives post-Shelby County?

    In Shelby County v. Holder, 570 US _ (2013), the Supreme Court held, in a 5-4 decision, that Section 4(b), which contains the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are subjected to preclearance, was unconstitutional.

    While the Court did not rule that Section 5, the preclearance section, was unconstitutional, jurisdictions identified by the coverage formula in Section 4(b) were no longer required to seek preclearance for new voting changes.

    Red states are wasting no time…