Senate Panel Rejects Reagan Nominee for Federal Judgeship : Critics Accused Him of Racially Insensitive Talk
The Senate Judiciary Committee today rejected the nomination of Jefferson B. Sessions III to a federal judgeship in Alabama, marking the first time that one of President Reagan’s district court nominees has been rejected.
Critics claim that Sessions, 38, made racially insensitive remarks, at one time calling a black lawyer “boy.”
The committee voted 10 to 8 to reject a motion to report the nomination favorably to the full Senate, then voted 9 to 9 to defeat a separate motion to report the nomination to the full Senate with no recommendation.
The nomination originally drew fire from civil rights groups because of his prosecution last year of three west Alabama civil rights activists on vote fraud charges.
The three were acquitted by a federal court jury, prompting civil rights leaders to charge that the prosecution was an attempt to intimidate black voters to help ensure GOP Sen. Jeremiah Denton’s reelection.
Sessions denied those charges and defended the prosecution during his first appearance before the Judiciary Committee in March. But he soon faced new allegations that he had made a series of racially insensitive statements.
Witnesses accused Sessions of calling a black lawyer a “boy,” of describing church and civil rights groups as “un-American,” of agreeing with a statement that a white civil rights lawyer was a “disgrace to his race,” and of saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan was all right until he learned members smoked marijuana.
Denton, who is Sessions’ chief supporter on the committee, argued today that Sessions, the U.S. attorney in Mobile, has become the victim of a “political conspiracy” stemming from his unsuccessful prosecution of the three civil rights activists.
After a lengthy speech in which he attempted to refute the allegations made against Sessions during more than 20 hours of confirmation hearings, Denton said, “I can’t believe that there is anything left that anyone can hold validly against Mr. Sessions.”
But Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) described Sessions as a nominee who is “hostile to civil rights organizations and their causes.
“How any black person would be able to feel they are going to have impartial justice from Mr. Sessions is beyond me.”
Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), who cast one of the deciding votes against the nomination, told his colleagues on the committee that he has “reasonable doubts” about whether Sessions would be a fair and impartial judge.
Sessions was nominated by Reagan last October, but opposition from civil rights groups led to an unprecedented series of four confirmation hearings and delayed committee action.
After the allegations of racial slurs, Sessions returned to the committee last month and vigorously denied making any of the statements attributed to him. He insisted that his racial views were exactly the opposite of what his opponents had told the committee.
He urged the committee to examine his record and the statements of support for his nomination from both black and white officials with whom he has worked.