On the second day of contentious Senate hearings over the judicial nomination of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, an unlikely witness made an appearance on Sessions' behalf.
Eddie Menton, city editor of the Mobile (Ala.) Press, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that Sessions had a solid and "decent" reputation in the city where he has been U.S. attorney for nearly five years.
The brief appearance of a journalist vouching for a nominee's reputation was considered unusual by many of Menton's peers, particularly because he is an editor whose reporters cover Sessions daily.
"We would not have testified," said Mike Foerster, managing editor of The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. "I don't think this is an area where the press needs to get involved."
With Sessions' nomination to U.S. District Court embroiled in charges that he has made derogatory remarks about civil rights groups, Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), his chief supporter, turned to an editor from the hometown newspaper that has supported Sessions through his congressional ordeal.
Despite widespread predictions that Sessions may be headed for defeat, Denton has made clear that he intends to push for a vote. Denton, running for reelection, is from Mobile, where Sessions is viewed as a hard-nosed prosecutor under attack by northern liberals.
Reached by telephone in Mobile, Menton said he did not appear "on behalf of" Sessions, but that Denton asked him to testify because he has known Sessions for many years.
He said people in Mobile were "incensed" that Sessions was being characterized as "a throwback to a disgraceful era," as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) put it. Kennedy was scolded in a Press-Register editorial that said: "With your reputation, you have a lot of nerve calling Sessions a 'disgrace.' "
"I only answered questions and said that he had a good reputation and that I had never heard attorneys who work with him or anybody around say anything derogatory about him," Menton said.
Menton said his executive editor and publisher agreed that he should appear because "we get subpoenaed and go to court and have to testify."
Randy Quarles, a Newhouse News Service reporter whose work appears primarily in the Press-Register and The Huntsville (Ala.) Times, reportedly told associates that it was a clear conflict of interest for Menton to appear and for Quarles to cover the appearance.
Quarles did so, however, at his editors' insistence.
A nine-year veteran who has been with the Newhouse Washington bureau for more than three years, Quarles expressed reluctance to discuss the situation, saying: "I made my points to the people I needed to make my points to, and I think I should leave it at that."
Menton said from Mobile that allegations that Sessions had made racial remarks "all came as a kind of surprise to us. None of those folks ever came to us."
Foerster said that "the Mobile papers have been very favorable to Sen. Denton, and I really think there's a closeness there that I'm uncomfortable with."
At the hearings, lawyers who worked with Sessions have testified that he called such groups as the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union "un-American" and "communist-inspired." Sessions has said the remarks were misinterpreted or made in jest.
Thomas Figures, a black who resigned in July as assistant U.S. attorney in Sessions' office, testified Thursday that Sessions occasionally called him "boy." Figures said "if you grew up in the south . . . you know what that means."
Figures said under questioning that Sessions did not use the term regularly, and two other prosecutors in Sessions' office said they never heard him call Figures "boy."