The Washington Times wrote that Jeff Sessions' 1986 nomination to a federal court was “blocked by Democrats,” but offered no explanation for that opposition. However, two Republicans voted against Sessions' nomination, which failed amid accusations that his pursuit of voter fraud charges against three African-American civil rights activists as U.S. attorney in 1985 were racially motivated and that he had made racially insensitive comments.
In a May 5 article noting that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) will replace Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) as the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- the committee responsible for approving judicial nominees -- The Washington Times wrote that “Sessions, who fought vociferously on behalf of former President George W. Bush's conservative judicial nominees, brings a unique perspective on nominations to the committee: His own 1986 nomination to a federal court was blocked by Democrats.” However, Sessions was not only “blocked by Democrats”; his nomination as a federal district judge was rejected 10-8, with two Republicans -- including Specter -- voting against him. Moreover, the article did not note that, according to reporting at the time, Sessions was blocked amid accusations that his 1985 pursuit of voter fraud charges against three African-American civil rights activists during his tenure as United States attorney were racially motivated and that he had made racially insensitive comments.
According to a June 17, 1985, Chicago Tribune article (accessed via Nexis), headlined, “Alabama Torn By Vote-Fraud Charges,” Sessions' office obtained indictments in Perry County, Alabama, accusing three African-American civil rights leaders of voter fraud. According to the article, “The most critical charge in the 29-count indictment is that Albert Turner; his wife, Evelyn; and Spencer Hogue Jr., while registering and assisting absentee voters in a Democratic primary last September, did 'open and fraudulently change those ballots that had not been marked for candidates (they) supported and endorsed.' ” The article quoted Maryland state Sen. Clarence Mitchell, chairman of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, saying, “This is a blatantly racist investigation, no question about it. ... The Justice Department has vigorously pursued this action in Alabama counties where blacks have gained political control while ignoring calls for vote-fraud investigations in neighboring counties where whites hold political control.” The article reported that Sessions “denied that his office was selectively prosecuting blacks rather than whites for vote fraud.”
After a jury acquitted the three activists -- “in four hours,” according to a New Republic article -- a July 5, 1985, Associated Press article (accessed via Nexis) reported that “Turner said after the verdict that the Justice Department brought the case because the growing black vote in Alabama was a threat to 'the power politicians.' Hogue said it was because 'I stand in the way of the white power structure.' ”
At the time of Sessions' confirmation hearing, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz wrote: “The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected one of President Reagan's judicial nominees for the first time yesterday, voting down Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III amid accusations that he has demonstrated an insensitivity to civil rights.” In the June 6, 1986, article (accessed via Nexis) headlined, “Reagan Pick For Judgeship Is Rejected,” Kurtz further reported that "[t]estimony that Sessions, the U.S. attorney in Mobile, had described the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union as 'un-American' helped persuade two Republicans, Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (Md.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.), to join the panel's eight Democrats in opposition." Kurtz also wrote that Sessions' charges against the Turners and Hogue were “the first of a string of Justice Department ballot-tampering cases against black civil rights activists in rural Alabama, and it sparked charges, denied by Sessions, that he had selectively prosecuted black leaders.” From the article:
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the vote sends “a clear signal to the Reagan administration that their judicial nominees must meet at least a minimum standard of sensitivity” on civil rights.
The White House was subdued about the defeat, with spokesman Larry Speakes saying that “the Senate has worked its will, and we will certainly have to accept its will.”
But [then-Attorney General Edwin] Meese issued a combative statement that blamed the defeat on “several liberal organizations” that oppose the Reagan administration. Such groups as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, Alliance for Justice and NAACP Legal Defense Fund led a concerted campaign against Sessions.
Meese called Sessions “the unfortunate victim of people whose tactics are reprehensible and who appear willing to smear anyone in order to advance their agenda, and whose claims of principled opposition are belied by ad hominem attacks that any reasonable person would find repulsive.”
Biden responded in an interview that Meese's “vehement reaction, as compared to the White House, is evidence of the fact that he is the ideologue in this administration. He is the one driving this selection process along ideological lines. He and not the Senate is guilty of demanding ideological purity.”
Biden said Sessions was rejected solely because of his insensitivity to race issues. He said the vote would aid opponents in the upcoming floor fight over Manion because Republicans have been asked too many times “to walk the plank for people who are unqualified.”
Sessions, 38, was nominated last fall after his unsuccessful prosecution of Albert Turner, a former aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on voting fraud charges.
This was the first of a string of Justice Department ballot-tampering cases against black civil rights activists in rural Alabama, and it sparked charges, denied by Sessions, that he had selectively prosecuted black leaders.
Sessions' prospects dimmed considerably when his confirmation hearings opened in March and the Democrats, citing affidavits from Justice Department officials, accused him of making a series of racially insensitive remarks.
Sessions acknowledged many of the remarks, but said they were distorted or taken out of context. He maintained, for example, that he had said that some people regard the NAACP and ACLU as “un-American” when they stray into foreign policy and other issues.
Sessions denied testimony that he had called a black assistant “boy.” But he acknowledged that he had agreed with another person's statement that a white civil rights attorney was “a disgrace to his race.”
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said that Sessions “changed his statements” at another hearing last month because “he fully understood that these statements might cost him his judgeship.”
On the “disgrace to his race” remark, Metzenbaum said: “Once he said he said it, once he said he didn't recall saying it, and once he said he didn't say it. ... This is a man who is hostile to civil rights organizations and their causes.”
But [then-Sen. Jeremiah] Denton [R-AL], who recommended Sessions for the judgeship, charged that Metzenbaum had “recited a litany of misleading statements which do not represent the truth about what Mr. Sessions said or what Mr. Sessions has done.” Denton said the media had focused on “inflammatory” allegations and paid little attention to “the refutations, recantations and denials.”
The New York Times also reported in a June 6, 1986, article (accessed via Nexis) headlined, “Senate Panel Hands Reagan First Defeat on Nominee for Judgeship,” that "[t]he nomination was opposed because of a number of racially insensitive statements Mr. Sessions was accused of making while serving as United States Attorney in Mobile, Ala. The nominee denied making racial statements, but both Democratic and Republican senators had expressed concern over his attitude toward members of minority groups and his prosecution last year of three blacks who were eventually acquitted on charges of voting fraud."
By contrast, in May 5 articles, several print outlets noted the controversy surrounding Sessions' failed nomination to the federal bench, including The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, which called the controversy “a racially tinged firestorm.”