know that in 1986 Jeff Sessions of Alabama was nominated by President Reagan for a federal judgeship, and Edward “the Swimmer” Kennedy of the Senate Judiciary Committee (in a wind-up for his thuggish assault on Judge Robert Bork a year later) said that “Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past”? After his judicial nomination was killed by a tie vote in the Judiciary Committee, with the Democrats getting a crucial assist from Republican senator Arlen Spector, Sessions eventually went into politics and was elected to the U.S. Senate himself in 1996. And now, in time for the Sonia Sotomayor hearings, Sessions is about to become the ranking minority member of that same Judiciary Committee that rejected him for a judgeship 23 years ago. Byron York
The Vindication of Jeff Sessions
By: Byron York
Chief Political Correspondent
05/30/09 10:00 PM EDT
Few politicians—few people, really—get to do what Jeff Sessions has done. Back in 1986, when he was a rising star in his home state of Alabama, Sessions was nominated for a seat on the federal courts. A conservative Republican, Sessions was attacked by Sens. Edward Kennedy and Patrick Leahy, and other powerful Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who accused him of racial insensitivity and argued he was not qualified for the bench. They voted down the nomination and sent Sessions home to Alabama in defeat.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Ten years later, after serving as attorney general of his state, Sessions ran for the Senate and won. Returning to Washington, he secured a spot on the Judiciary Committee, taking his place alongside Kennedy, Leahy and the other Democrats who had beaten him up so badly in 1986. You want to talk about living well being the best revenge? Whenever the Judiciary Committee meets, Sessions looks across the table at the very men who tried, unsuccessfully, to derail his career.
And now Sessions has taken another step up. In early May, he became the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, which means that when the television lights go on for the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, the senator from Alabama will be running the show on the Republican side. It’s quite a journey from those bad days of 1986.
Jeff Sessions, 62, grew up Hybart, Ala., a tiny town in the southern part of the state where his father owned a country store. Young Jeff came from no particular political tradition; ask him where his conservatism comes from, and he’ll tell you about B.W. Dickey, his high school English teacher.
“He called me aside one day,” Sessions recalls, “and said, ‘Jeff, you’ve got good values and you need to be armed when you go off to college. You should subscribe to National Review.’” Sessions took the advice and was soon reading, dictionary at his side, William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, James Burnham, and the other stars of the bible of the rising conservative movement.
Sessions went to college at Huntingdon, a small liberal arts school in Montgomery. He wasn’t entirely sure what to do after getting a degree in history, and he decided to try being a teacher, spending a year with a sixth-grade class—he taught all subjects—at a small Montgomery school. “It was the end of segregation, but there were still some schools that were virtually all African-American,” Sessions says. “I think my class was all African-American. I really worked hard at it, but I’m afraid I learned as much as my students.”
There were no lawyers in the Sessions family, but at some point Jeff realized he was temperamentally disposed toward the profession. “I loved the rigor of the debate,” he says. In 1970, he enrolled in the University of Alabama Law School, and after graduation practiced briefly before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Mobile. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan chose him for the post of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. It was a job he loved. “I believe we had the finest U.S. Attorney’s Office in America,” Sessions says. “That was our goal.”
After a few years in the office, Sessions got the call from the White House telling him he had been chosen for a seat on the United States District Court in Alabama. It was quite an honor, at least until he got to Washington for the confirmation hearing.
A new era was beginning in the Senate’s history of judicial confirmations. The old days, when most confirmations were pro forma affairs, were coming to a close, and a new period, in which both sides fought pitched ideological battles, was opening. Sessions was to become the first casualty.
Democrats accused him of having made racially insensitive remarks, including allegedly calling the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People “un-American.” (He allegedly said the same of the American Civil Liberties Union.) The critics also accused Sessions of mounting a racially motivated voter fraud investigation. Sessions said it wasn’t true—at one point, he was reduced to declaring, “I am not a racist”—but his opponents were determined. Sessions was defeated in the Judiciary Committee when two Republicans, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Charles Mathias of Maryland, joined Democrats in voting to kill the nomination.
Today the affair lives on in old news clips. A few years ago, when Sessions appeared on “Meet the Press” to discuss confirmations, he found himself staring at an old image of Kennedy speaking in 1986. “Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past,” Kennedy said. It wasn’t something Sessions enjoyed reliving.
“That was the most unkind thing that has ever been said about me,” Sessions says. “It was exceedingly painful to hear someone of that prominence make that statement, and it was hurtful because it wasn’t true.”
After his defeat, Sessions went back to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he served several more years before deciding, in 1995 at the age of 49, to run for state attorney general, his first stab at elective office. He won, and two years later ran successfully for the Senate.
In his 12 years in office, Sessions has put together an unquestionably conservative record. The Washington-based American Conservative Union, which rates lawmakers on a liberal-to-conservative scale of 1 to 100, has given Sessions a lifetime rating of 95, which puts him among the handful of the most conservative members of the Senate.
Conservative, but not always Republican. When the president of Sessions’ party, George W. Bush, pushed a comprehensive immigration reform proposal, he found an implacable opponent in the senator from Alabama. “As a former prosecutor, it was just unthinkable that we would have this massive lawlessness,” Sessions says, referring to the unstemmed flow of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. “And to pass new laws that weren’t going to be any more enforced than the old ones was just as unthinkable.”
In the immigration fight, Sessions was fighting not only the president but Kennedy. At other times, Sessions and Kennedy have found themselves on the same side of an issue, as they did in co-sponsoring a bill to reduce the incidence of prison rape. “We have gotten along pretty well,” Sessions says of his old nemesis.
In addition, Sessions enjoys pointing out that when another senator who opposed him in 1986, Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter, was asked recently whether he regretted any of the thousands of votes he has cast in the Senate, Specter mentioned just one: voting against Sessions. “I have since found that Senator Sessions is egalitarian,” Specter told reporters.
Sessions hasn’t forgotten, but today he is for all appearances a man who is happy where he is, who doesn’t dwell on the past. “I don’t have any problem putting that aside,” Sessions says. “You can’t dwell on those things. If I had been confirmed as a judge, I’d be reading briefs today. How can you complain about that?”
Byron York writes a political column every Tuesday and Friday and blogs regularly for ExaminerPoliticis.com.