WASHINGTON – Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Republican equating Sonia Sotomayor‘s supposed empathy with racial bias, was blocked from the federal bench himself two decades ago for making insensitive remarks about the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP.
The third-term Alabama senator, this week at least, is the face of a party without a clear leader. His role strikes some as hypocritical. But arguably, no one knows more intimately what a political minefield race has been for the GOP.
Nominated by President Ronald Reagan to the federal bench, Sessions, then a federal prosecutor, was attacked by liberals for “gross insensitivity” on matters of race. Notably, he is reported to have joked that the KKK — a violent white supremacist group during much of its history — wouldn’t be so bad but for their use of marijuana. The NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, he allegedly said, were communist-inspired and tried to force civil rights down people’s throats.
Sessions’ nomination never made it to the Senate floor. His home-state senator, the late Howell Heflin, voted against him.
Flash forward two decades and Sessions, 62, is more than just a survivor; he was one of the biggest winners in the 2008 elections. Sixty-four percent of his state voted to return him to Washington in a year when the electorate roundly rejected Republicans nationally.
So thorough was the GOP rout nationally that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, previously the lead Republican on the Judiciary Committee and its former chairman, abandoned the GOP for the Democrats. Republicans gave Sessions a shot at the big time — not because he is particularly senior or well-known, but because he might buck up the GOP base.
Sessions is the personification of a party with an overwhelmingly white, Southern, religious membership. Where judicial matters are concerned, Sessions gives voice to conservatives’ opposition to “liberal activist judges” who he believes try to usurp Congress’ lawmaking duties.
Some observers considered racial bias too sensitive a topic for Sessions and the panel’s six other Republicans – all white men – to confront.
Not so. Sessions led off the questioning for the Republicans by asking Sotomayor about a selection of remarks, one at a time, in which he said she seemed to say that a jurist’s personal background might affect his or her legal decisions.
He went immediately to her now-famous statement from a 2001 speech that she hoped that a “wise Latina” would make a better decision than a white male who did not have the same life experiences.
“As a judge who has taken this oath, I am very troubled that you would repeatedly over a decade or more make statements” like that one, Sessions said.
What about her statement in which she wondered aloud “whether achieving the goal of impartiality is possible at all?” Sessions asked.
“Aren’t you saying there that you expect your background and heritage to influence your decision-making?” he asked.
She didn’t accept that.
“I believe my record of 17 years demonstrates fully that I do believe that law — that judges must apply the law and not make the law,” she said. “Whether I’ve agreed with a party or not, found them sympathetic or not, in every case I have decided, I have done what the law requires.”
But Sessions kept up his narrative.
“I think it’s consistent in the comments I’ve quoted to you and your previous statements that you do believe that your backgrounds will affect the result in cases,” he said. “That is not impartiality.”
Sotomayor stuck to her guns.
“No, sir. As I’ve indicated, my record shows that at no point or time have I ever permitted my personal views or sympathies to influence an outcome of a case,” she replied. “I do not permit my sympathies, personal views, or prejudices to influence the outcome of my cases.”
Sessions did get Sotomayor to back off her “wise Latina” comment. Sotomayor said she was trying to inspire young minority law students — a “rhetorical flourish that fell flat.”
“It was bad,” she said.