Sessions Takes Specter's Judiciary Post

Sen. Jeff Sessions, center, was denied a post on the federal bench in 1986 amid allegations of racism.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, center, was denied a post on the federal bench in 1986 amid allegations of racism. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Senate Republicans yesterday took the first steps in preparing to challenge President Obama's eventual nominee for the Supreme Court, selecting as their point man for confirmation hearings a backbench Alabama conservative whose own 1986 nomination to the federal courts turned into a racially tinged firestorm.

Sen. Jeff Sessions was named the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, a key perch that was left vacant last week after Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) switched to the Democratic Party. Sessions will take center stage in efforts to test Obama's choice to succeed retiring Justice David H. Souter at a time when Republicans have seen their ranks in the Senate decimated and the party lacks an obvious spokesman on legal matters.

"The nominee needs to be given a fair evaluation. . . . I don't mind tough questioning of a nominee. I support that," Sessions told reporters yesterday.

Getting off to a bipartisan start, Obama yesterday called Specter and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a former Judiciary Committee chairman, beginning the process of consulting with senators as he weighs potential nominees. "He's not going to pick some radical," Hatch told reporters after the conversation, saying the president suggested he would take a "pragmatic" path.

While Hatch and others have warned against appointing an "activist" judge, Obama starts the selection process with 59 members in the Democratic caucus and 40 GOP senators. And a once-formidable outside network of conservative groups now controls only a fraction of the eight-figure budgets they used to promote the Bush White House nominees earlier this decade.

The selection of Sessions, which came in a compromise brokered with more senior Republican senators, gives the GOP an experienced hand at the rough-and-tumble politics of confirmation wars. His diminutive stature and Southern drawl belie his instinct for confrontation.

Unlike the moderate Specter, Sessions is a staunch conservative who opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage while promoting a strict view that judges should adhere to the original intent of the Founding Fathers in their rulings. He has demonstrated political independence on several occasions, helping lead the fight to kill President George W. Bush's proposed changes to immigration law in 2007 and publicly challenging Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's competency to run the Justice Department amid a series of scandals two years ago.

The ascension to the top minority post on the Judiciary Committee brings Sessions full circle from his own nomination fight 23 years ago. Appointed a U.S. attorney in Alabama in 1981, Sessions was nominated to become a U.S. District judge by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. A career Justice Department lawyer testified that Sessions had once called the NAACP an "un-American" group, while another raised issues about remarks Sessions made about the Ku Klux Klan.

Sessions faced heated questioning from a pair of Democrats still playing prominent roles today, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who called the nominee "a throwback to a shameful era," and Vice President Biden, then a senator in the initial stages of launching his failed 1988 presidential campaign. The committee held four hearings, more than were held on any recent Supreme Court nomination, with Sessions pleading "I am not a racist" during one committee appearance.

Sessions's nomination failed in committee on a 10 to 8 vote, with Specter joining the nominee's original patron, Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) in dooming the nomination. In 1994, Sessions turned his attention to elected office, winning a state attorney general's race. He was elected to the Senate in 1996 after Heflin retired.

In his first act of reckoning, he won appointment to the Judiciary Committee in January 1997. Now, more than 12 years later, Sessions lays claim to Specter's old post as the top Republican on the panel.

Top Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have openly jousted with Sessions over the years but have maintained a level of deference in doing so. The panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), cancelled key committee meetings last week while Sessions was in Alabama for an aunt's funeral services, a goodwill gesture before Sessions was officially tapped to take over for Specter.

"Jeff Sessions may well be an excellent ranking member. I'm not going to prejudge it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a senior Judiciary Committee member.

Sessions inherits a staff of roughly two dozen aides who had been working for Specter, including lawyers and researchers who have begun working with other committee members to compile dossiers on potential nominees. He said yesterday that his own nomination experience instinctively gives him "a little more sympathy than normal" for whomever Obama selects, while suggesting that his 15 years in the federal prosecutor's office gives him a real-life legal background from which to draw as the confirmation process unfolds.

"He'll be tough, he'll be fair, he'll be firm," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), a senior Republican on the committee.

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