The Senate Judiciary Committee, for the first time rejecting one of President Reagan's choices for the federal bench, Thursday voted down the nomination of Jefferson B. Sessions III to a district court in Alabama.
The 39-year old Sessions, now a U.S. attorney in Mobile, Ala., became only the second judicial nominee to be turned down by the committee in 49 years.
Sessions had come under heavy attack for past remarks that his critics said reflected insensitivity to racial minorities. Sessions denied that he was insensitive and said his remarks were being distorted.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes indicated disappointment with Sessions' rejection but added, "The Senate has worked its will and we'll have to accept the Senate's will."
But Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III deplored what he called "vicious and highly personal attacks made upon Jeff Sessions by outside groups with a big ideological ax to grind. He is the unfortunate victim of people whose tactics are reprehensible, who appear willing to smear anyone in order to advance their agenda."
In Mobile, Sessions said he still believes he is qualified for the job and said he is sorry he did not win committee approval. "The matter is over," he said. "I accept the vote of the Judiciary Committee and intend to continue my work."
Rejection on Two Votes
The committee's rejection came on two votes. By a 10-8 count, it refused to recommend to the full Senate that Sessions' nomination be confirmed. Then, in a 9-9 vote, it rejected a second motion to send the nomination to the Senate without recommendation.
That action effectively killed the nomination. A committee spokesman said it could be revived only through a "discharge petition" signed by a majority of the Senate, a highly unusual and unlikely procedure.
Sessions' rejection came on the heels of another setback to Administration attempts to place more conservatives on the federal bench.
The committee refused last month to endorse the President's nomination of Daniel A. Manion to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. The Manion nomination was sent without a recommendation to the Senate, where a spirited floor fight is expected, perhaps next week.
The vote against Sessions was widely hailed by civil rights groups and other organizations that have attacked a number of Reagan judicial nominees.
"We are quite elated," said Althea T. L. Simmons, director of the Washington office of the NAACP. "We felt all along that the Senate could not in good conscience place Mr. Sessions on the bench for a lifetime."
Anthony Podesta, president of People for the American Way, said the committee had reaffirmed the need for judges to have "a demonstrated commitment to impartiality and equal justice."
In committee testimony, Sessions acknowledged that he had once referred to the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and some other groups as "un-American organizations," but he denied that he actually believes them to be un-American. He said he believes such organizations may have taken positions "adverse to the security of the United States."
A former associate testified that Sessions once said he had thought Ku Klux Klansmen were "OK" until he learned they were "pot smokers." However, another colleague said he believed the remark was a joke, and Sessions himself testified that he sees the klan as "a force of hatred and bigotry."
1985 Prosecution Assailed
His nomination also was assailed because of his prosecution in 1985 of three civil rights activists in Alabama on charges of vote fraud. The three later were acquitted and critics contended that the prosecutions were intended to intimidate black voters to help ensure the reelection of Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.). Sessions denied any such intention.
All eight Democrats on the committee and Republican Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland voted against Sessions on both motions Thursday. Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania voted against a favorable recommendation for Sessions but voted for sending the nomination to the Senate with no recommendation.
Both Alabama senators sit on the Judiciary Committee, and Denton, the Republican, expressed dismay with the outcome. "I do not think this was an example of justice being served," he said.
But Sen. Howell Heflin, the Democrat, said he voted against the nomination because he had "reasonable doubts" about Sessions' impartiality. "Lifetime appointments demand extraordinary caution," he said.
The last judicial nominee rejected by the Judiciary Committee was Charles Winberry Jr. of North Carolina, whose defeat in 1980 was the first in 43 years. Former President Richard M. Nixon's nominations of Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. and G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court were killed in 1969 and 1970, but those two nominations died in the full Senate.