Sessions, GOP's Lead on Panel Weighing Sotomayor, Was Once Rejected for Bench

The Post's Philip Rucker talks to Emily Kotecki about his conversation with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions will be the face of the GOP during the nomination hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Video by Emily Kotecki/The Washington Post
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

For Jeff Sessions, this moment has been 23 years in the making.

If things had gone as planned in 1986, the conservative Alabama prosecutor would have been confirmed to a lifetime appointment to a federal judgeship. But allegations of racism cast Sessions as a throwback to the Jim Crow South, and the Senate Judiciary Committee voted down his nomination. Stunned and embarrassed, Sessions returned home to Mobile as a man undone.

Soon he turned to politics, was elected to the Senate and joined the very committee that denied him a seat on the federal bench. He ascended from behind the scenes to the panel's top Republican spot, and it now falls to him to weigh the GOP's competing interests and political calculations while guiding the fractured party through the upcoming confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Yesterday, the judge went to the Capitol for private meetings with Sessions and other key senators.

With her nomination, race (and ethnicity) once again looms as a major subplot. This time, though, Sessions is on the other side of the rostrum, and there are some who wonder how he will handle it. Will Sessions go after Sotomayor the way Senate Democrats vilified him long ago? Or has the experience made him more empathetic to nominees who face tough questioning?

"I've felt sorry for the poor person in the pit getting grilled," Sessions said in a recent interview. "I don't think you'll find that I've abused any witness. And I don't like vindication."

Sotomayor, facing pressure from lawmakers to explain her comments from 2001 that her Latina identity matters in how she reaches conclusions, told Democratic and Republican senators yesterday that she would follow the law.

But it was a Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who pressed her most directly to clarify her remarks. Leahy said that she told him, "Of course one's life experience shapes who you are," but that she added: "Ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law, no matter what their upbringing has been."

Sessions said Sotomayor -- who will resume her visits with lawmakers today -- used similar language with him, but he conceded, "I don't know that we got into that significantly." Rather the two spent more time discussing "the moral authority of laws and judges." He said he "enjoyed the conversation."

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, 62, is an unlikely choice to be the face of the GOP at such a critical juncture. At times, he has appeared uncomfortable in the spotlight. When Sotomayor visited his office yesterday, the white-haired senator who speaks with a heavy Southern accent sat before a throng of cameras clutching his hands together and nervously tapping his right foot.

As the committee's ranking Republican, taking over after Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) switched parties this spring, Sessions sets the priorities of a party already facing a deep split between conservatives and moderates. He is considering comments by radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) that Sotomayor is racist, but he also is conscious of turning off Latino voters by questioning Sotomayor too aggressively.

And then there is the political reality: Sessions has just one vote, and Republicans have seven, on a committee of 19.

"It's a tough job because you're the principal negotiator and point man for your party," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). "But Jeff is not a shrinking violet by any stretch of the imagination."

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