Political junkies who weren't thrilled at the prospect of a relatively staid confirmation process for President Barack Obama's as yet unnamed Supreme Court nominee can rest easy. This week Senate Republicans named perennial bomb thrower Jeff Sessions, 62, of Alabama to be the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, promising to bring at least a few sparks to a confirmation process that if Minnesota's Al Franken is seated was bound to be relatively easy.
While Sessions alone can't change the basic legislative math that promises whomever Obama picks to replace retiring Justice David Souter a fairly easy path to confirmation, he can certainly liven up the proceedings. It's not even that Sessions is a dedicated antiabortion, antitax conservative, a vocal opponent of granting citizenship to illegal immigrants who helped tank immigration-reform efforts in 2005 and 2006. It's that he himself has quite a bit of history being on the other side of a bitter judicial nomination fight, one that he lost after being accused of holding some objectionable views on race. (See pictures from Obama's first 100 days.)
Twenty-three years ago, the same committee he now leads on the Republican side rejected Sessions' nomination to the federal bench. President Ronald Reagan already had more than 200 conservative judges confirmed when he nominated Sessions, then the young U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, to the U.S. District Court in Alabama. At his confirmation hearing, Democrats tracked down a Justice Department employee named J. Gerald Hebert who had worked with Sessions on civil rights cases. Hebert told the committee that Sessions had once complained to him that the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were "un-American," "communist-inspired" and, worse, that they "forced civil rights down the throats of the people." Sessions didn't help matters by trying to make the case that in some circumstances, those organizations could indeed be seen as un-American, and the Republican-controlled committee voted 8-10 against him. The deciding vote was cast by Alabama Senator Howell Heflin, whose seat both in the Senate and on the committee Sessions would take a decade later. (A day-by-day look at Obama's first 100 days.)
"It's right out of a novel or a Shakespeare play," says Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "And in some ways, it will be interesting to see if a guy who feels he was tagged as a racist unfairly will listen to appeals that he not do the same thing to judicial nominees of the party that did it to him."
But Sessions' colleagues, for the most part, say he is a changed man. Senator Arlen Specter, whose defection to the Democratic Party opened the door for Sessions to move up, bent over backward on Tuesday to compliment the Alabaman, even though Specter was on the committee in 1986 and voted against Sessions at the time. "My vote against candidate Sessions for the federal court was a mistake," Specter told reporters on Capitol Hill, "because I have since found that Senator Sessions is egalitarian." Echoed Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and another long-term member of the committee, "The reason it won't come up is because he has been a member of the committee for a long period of time, and he's showed a great deal of impartiality. And he doesn't hold any of those views." Even the committee's chairman, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, welcomed Sessions: "I get along well with him. I've always kept my word to him and he's always kept his word to me, and that's the most important thing."
Still, not everyone was pleased with the selection of Sessions. Republicans are facing a choice to "try to be true to a more narrow part of their party in terms of the ideology or whether they should be reaching out to folks in the middle. I have a lot of respect for Jeff Sessions, but he would be insulted if somebody called him a moderate," said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. "So I'm not sure that, as we work on nominations to the Supreme Court, that this is going to allow this to be as bipartisan as we all want this to be." And the cable-TV channels have been full of speculation that the GOP might be making a mistake by turning to Sessions to be its face at the confirmation hearings, considering the ugly accusations that his selection dredges up.
Sessions, himself, has pledged to be evenhanded. "The nominee deserves a fair evaluation, and I will insist on a fair hearing, but I will also ensure that the questioning be a rigorous and thorough examination of his or her qualifications," he said in a statement. "Only through thoughtful and substantive questioning can the Senate fully meet its constitutional responsibility to 'advise and consent.' "
He may be meeting the nominee as early as next week. "The sooner that he sends one up, the more likely it will be that that person is confirmed by the Senate before August, which is what they [the Obama Administration] want," Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who is also on the committee, said. The Senate has just over two months until the break, punctuated by weeks off for Independence and Memorial Days. Not a lot of time to fit in two rounds of personal visits, vetting, confirmation hearings and a floor vote as is traditional with Supreme Court nominees.
For all the focus on his past, Sessions isn't even the most conservative member of the committee. According to rankings by the American Conservative Union, Sessions comes in third in a group of seven with a 95 rating, behind Senators Tom Coburn (97.8) and John Kyl (96.96). When asked about Sessions' reputation for bomb-throwing, Hatch chuckled and said, "Well, so do I. So does everybody on the committee, on both sides. They're really good blockers, I tell ya. That's a tough committee. It's a partisan committee, as it should be."