A Senator Who's Seen the Other Side
GOP's Lead on Judiciary Panel Was Once Rejected for Bench

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."

Sessions has promised a rigorous review of Sotomayor's record and warned that there may be a "drop in deference to the president" because he said Democrats were "very, very aggressive" in questioning President George W. Bush's nominees. He also is resisting calls from Obama and Leahy to confirm Sotomayor by Aug. 7, when the Senate breaks for a recess. Yesterday, he said he wants hearings to take place in October.

Beloved by conservatives, Sessions has been a vocal opponent of allowing undocumented immigrants the chance to become U.S. citizens. But unlike many of his colleagues on the panel, he lacks a national profile and a signature issue. Some in Alabama describe Sessions as "vanilla."

Yet what the 5-foot-5 senator lacks in bravado, he makes up for in discipline, practiced over hours as a Sunday-school teacher at his family's Methodist church, 14 years in the Army Reserve and decades as a lawyer. An early riser, he often goes to the Capitol gym before 7 a.m., running on the treadmill and hashing over bills with Cornyn.

Known as a nuts-and-bolts senator, Sessions arrives at committee meetings having done his homework, colleagues said. The Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared," is engraved on a stone on his office desk.

His steady handling thus far of the Sotomayor nomination has earned praise from across the aisle.

"We may well disagree on the final outcome of the nomination, but I think he's handled it in a very statesmanlike fashion," Leahy said.

Sessions's courtroom experience lends credibility to his arguments, his Republican colleagues said. As someone who supports a strict interpretation of the Constitution, he believes that no judge should be swayed by personal or political allegiances, and he takes issue with Obama's statement that judges should have "empathy . . . with people's hopes and struggles." Sessions called this a "postmodern infection" that threatens law.

"We need to articulate why it's important that judges show restraint and that every American can believe that when they call that ball a ball and that strike a strike it was an honest call, not because they were pulling for one side or another," he said.

If Sotomayor's America is the South Bronx in New York, then Sessions's is Hybart, Ala. The two locales couldn't be more different. Sotomayor chased her dreams as a Latina in the city projects, playing loteria, a card game, with neighborhood kids. She once bragged about her cultural taste in food as a young lady, eating such delicacies as pig intestines, pigs' feet with beans, and pigs' tongue and ears.

Sessions, meanwhile, came of age in a vast, bucolic land. He grew up in a modest country house and went hunting and fishing. He worked with his father around the general store the family owned. Every bit the good Alabama boy, Sessions became an Eagle Scout just before enrolling at Huntingdon College, a small Methodist school in nearby Montgomery.

In the 1960s, as the world around him changed dramatically, Sessions said he was disengaged from the civil rights movement, becoming engrossed instead with the conservative politics of the National Review. He said he regrets not having taken a lead in fighting for civil rights.

"I guess I was more like the average Alabamian," he said. "Most of my contemporaries, including myself, we probably could have been more affirmative in taking stands on those issues."

Sessions said the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books and the TV show "Dragnet" inspired him to become a lawyer. (Sotomayor, too, cites Nancy Drew novels as an inspiration.)

After President Ronald Reagan appointed him U.S. attorney in Mobile in 1981, Sessions brought charges of voter fraud against three black civil rights activists, including a former aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They were acquitted.

In 1986, Reagan nominated him for the federal bench, and accusations of racial insensitivities hung over his Senate hearings. Sessions called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union "un-American" and "communist-inspired" and said they tried to "force civil rights down the throats of people," according to sworn statements. He was accused of calling a black assistant "boy." And he once said of the Ku Klux Klan "I used to think they're okay" until learning that some members were "pot smokers," according to sworn statements.

After Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) led the fight against Sessions, calling him "a throwback to a disgraceful era," Sessions responded: "That is the most painful thing I have ever heard. . . . It breaks my heart."

The Judiciary Committee approved 269 Reagan nominees to the federal bench before ever voting one down. Sessions was the first, and he left Washington without even the support of his home-state senator on the panel, Howell Heflin (D).

Recalling the episode, Sessions said his comments had been distorted to smear him. "It was so embarrassing to have people think that I didn't believe in equality, that I was racist or had discriminatory intent," he said. "This was horrible. That was not so."

For Sessions, the Sotomayor hearings provide a chance to recover.

"He's spent much of his career on the far side of the gulf from the civil rights community, from the party now in power, from people like Sonia Sotomayor," said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous. "We hope that he will distinguish himself not just as a leader of the Senate, but distinguish himself from his own history of making divisive comments."

So far, Sessions and Sotomayor have gotten off to a smooth start. When they first met yesterday, they exchanged laughs. By the time Sotomayor left after 30 minutes of closed-door conversation, the Southern senator and Latina judge appeared as if they had found common ground -- perhaps over Nancy Drew.

Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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