Beyond the rhetorical fireworks, some troubling facts emerged.
By Alice Ollstein and Kira Lerner
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a two-day hearing this week to determine whether staunch Trump ally Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) should be confirmed to lead the Department of Justice.
In 1986, the same committee deemed Sessions too racist to serve as a federal judge.
Though Democratic lawmakers and some witnesses were highly critical of the Alabama senator’s record, it’s almost certain that the Republican-controlled Congress will approve his nomination. Still, the marathon session exposed incidents from Sessions’ career that aren’t often discussed, and offered a glimpse into how the next attorney general plans to run his Justice Department.
Here are seven revelations from the hearing that stood out:
1. Sessions is open to prosecuting reporters for doing their job.
Over the marathon two-day confirmation hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) was the only committee member to question Sessions on his stance on freedom of the press. Referencing her father’s career as a newspaper reporter, she asked if he would make a “commitment not to put reporters in jail for doing their jobs.”
“I have not studied those regulations,” replied the Alabama senator, though he worked for years to block a bill that would have given reporters this legal protection.
“You could have a situation,” he went on, “in which our media is not the unbiased media we see today, and they could be a mechanism through which unlawful intelligence is obtained.”
Sessions implied that reporters who publish classified documents leaked by government whistleblowers can be prosecuted and forced to reveal their sources — even if the information is in the public interest. In 2013, he took the same stance when he helped tank a federal reporters’ shield law that had bipartisan support in Congress.
David Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, testified against Sessions’ confirmation on Tuesday, saying Sessions’ response on this issue alarmed him. “Our country’s democracy depends on protecting the freedom of the press,” he said.
2. Sessions is open to cracking down on states that legalized weed.
For decades, Sessions has distinguished himself as one of Congress’ most vehement opponents of marijuana legalization, and his confirmation hearing suggested he will act no differently as attorney general. Asked if he would continue the Obama administration’s policy of leaving alone the states that have voted to legalize medical and recreational marijuana, Sessions replied that he “won’t commit to never enforcing federal law.”
3. Sessions would not investigate abusive police departments.
Throughout the first day of the hearing, Sessions indicated that his Justice Department will abandon the agency’s investigations of police departments across the country that show patterns and practices of misconduct.
According to Sessions, the Obama administration’s investigations into police forces in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and other cities “undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness.”
Sessions also told Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) that those investigations are unfair and put officers in danger. “To smear whole departments places those officers at greater risk,” he said.
The Obama administration has focused its examinations into systematic police abuse and misconduct, and has uncovered many instances of deadly and excessive force, poor training, and other issues. The DOJ has publicized these findings in an effort to increase transparency and trust in law enforcement.
4. Sessions is open to indefinite detention of U.S. citizens.
Hours into Sessions’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked him if he believes the government can “indefinitely detain Americans in the United States without charge or trial.”
“Classically, the answer is yes,” he responded, explaining that indefinite detention would be allowed by his Justice Department if the government proves a person is “connected sufficiently with an enemy action against the United States.” He said U.S. citizens in this circumstance would be given a habeaus review, a legal procedure that offers less protection than a full trial, meaning the government could detain people without having to find them guilty in court.
5. Sessions is unsure a secular lawyer is as trustworthy as a religious one.
During the confirmation hearing, multiple Democratic senators raised concerns that Sessions would implement religious and political tests for staff members at the Justice Department, citing his past remarks that “justice has to be saved from secular progressive liberals.”
Under questioning, Sessions sought to assuage these fears, saying: “We are not a theocracy. Nobody should be required to believe anything.”
But when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) asked if “a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious,” he responded, “Well, I’m not sure.”
Whitehouse noted Wednesday that “it’s a matter of concern when an attorney general thinks that a secular attorney may have a lesser or different appreciation of truth.”
6. Sessions committed an egregious act of prosecutorial misconduct in the 1990s.
On Wednesday, an often-overlooked case from Sessions’ past returned to haunt him. The litigation, a criminal prosecution of an industrial equipment company in 1997, was dismissed by an Alabama judge who called it an egregious example of prosecutorial misconduct.
The judge noted that Session’s office brought the case because of a request from a competing corporation, a clear conflict of interest.
“Even having been given every benefit of the doubt, the misconduct of the attorney general in this case far surpasses in both extensiveness and measure the totality of any prosecutorial misconduct ever previously presented to or witnessed by this court,” wrote James S. Garrett, a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge.
Sessions made no mention of this case on the questionnaire he submitted to Congress, which asked the senator to list his past “most significant litigated matters.”
7. Sessions claims not to be familiar with one of the country’s biggest voting rights cases.
During one of the first lines of questioning about voting rights, Klobuchar asked Sessions on Tuesday about Texas’ restrictive voter ID law, which requires all eligible citizens to provide a photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
Klobuchar specifically asked Sessions about the Fifth Circuit’s finding last year that the law intentionally discriminated against black and Latino voters.
“I have not studied that,” Sessions responded. “There’s going to be a debate about it. Courts are ruling on it now.” He went on to add that he generally supports voter ID laws and that they do not appear to be discriminatory.
The appeals court struck down Texas’s law last year, finding that it violated the Voting Rights Act, a law that Sessions would be tasked with enforcing as attorney general. He has referred to the VRA as a “piece of intrusive legislation,” and celebrated when it was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.
8. Martin Luther King’s widow thought Sessions was “reprehensible.”
A long-lost letter from Coretta Scott King — written for Sessions’ first and failed confirmation hearing to become a federal judge in 1986 — surfaced this week and was entered into the official record by Democratic lawmakers.
In the letter, King argued that Sessions’ decision as a U.S. attorney to prosecute voting rights activists who were assisting elderly African Americans in the state disqualified him from holding a federal judgeship.
“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts,” she said. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”