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Jeff Sessions Previously Denied Federal Judgeship Amid Racism Controversy


When someone is nominated to a Cabinet position, they are asked a lot of questions, and one is whether they've ever been rejected for a federal appointment. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's pick to be attorney general, said no at first. But that was incorrect. Sessions was rejected for a federal judgeship 30 years ago. He later amended his answer.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg covered those high-profile hearings back then, and she has this report.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Who is the real Jeff Sessions? At tomorrow's hearing, there will be two contradictory portraits painted and two accounts of those 1986 hearings. Oddly enough, both will be true. That's because there were two sets of hearings in 1986, one that went so badly that Sessions appeared to be finished and a second a month later called at the insistence of Sessions' chief Senate supporter.

At the first round of hearings in March 1986, Sessions made a number of damaging admissions. A month later in April, he changed his testimony. In March, for instance, he agreed that he'd referred to a white civil rights lawyer as a, quote, "disgrace to his race."


JEFF SESSIONS: Trying to recollect on it the best I can recall was, and I say, well, he's not that popular around town. I've heard him referred to as a disgrace to his race.

TOTENBERG: But a month later, he had a different story.


SESSIONS: I am absolutely convinced that I did not call Mr. Blackshear a disgrace to his race, and I did not acknowledge it in any form.

TOTENBERG: In March of '86, Sessions conceded that he had referred to the NAACP, the National Council of Churches and the ACLU as communist-inspired and un-American. He admitted that he was, as he put it, sometimes loose with my tongue.


SESSIONS: That's probably something I shouldn't have said, but I really didn't mean any harm.

TOTENBERG: At his second hearing, though, Sessions said this.


SESSIONS: I know what I believe about these organizations. These organizations are essential organizations in a pluralistic society. I welcome their role. They are quintessentially American organizations. They are not un-American organizations.

TOTENBERG: Joseph Biden, then a senator on the committee, pressed the point.


JOE BIDEN: Are you telling us that you, Jeff Sessions, at no time has concluded that the National Council of Churches has engaged in un-American activities?

SESSIONS: My opinion is they have not. They may have taken positions that I consider to be adverse to the security interests of the United States.

BIDEN: Does that make them un-American (inaudible)?

SESSIONS: No, Sir, it does not.

BIDEN: No, does that make the positions un-American?


BIDEN: So you can have a position adverse to security interests of the United States and not be un-American. Is that what you're saying?

SESSIONS: Well, I - if you hold it in good faith, you're not an un-American person or an un-American organization - no, Sir.

TOTENBERG: Sessions tried to explain the reason for some of his changed answers by saying that he'd been taken by surprise in March. But under examination by Senator Biden, he conceded he'd been informed well in advance about all the controversial areas of questioning. Still, Sessions said, the first round of hearings had left the wrong impression.


SESSIONS: I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create. I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks. I've supported civil rights activity in my state. I have done my job with integrity, equality and fairness for all.

TOTENBERG: It's a rare thing for the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote down a judicial nomination. Indeed back in 1986, it was only the second time in nearly a half century that the committee had vetoed a federal district court nominee. Two moderate Republicans joined the committee's Democrats to kill the nomination, and it was subsequently formally withdrawn.

But that was 30 years ago. Sessions' chances for confirmation now are a lot better. After the 1986 rejection, he remained the chief federal prosecutor in Alabama for five more years, during which he asserts that he went after the Ku Klux Klan and supported civil rights groups.

Soon after, he was elected state attorney general, and two years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he was re-elected three times. In the Senate, he is personally well-liked by his colleagues, and for much of 2016, he was the only senator to have endorsed Donald Trump. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE HOLIDAY SONG, "EASY LIVIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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