The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general, officially installing a man deemed too racist to be a Reagan-era federal judge as head of the nation’s highest law enforcement office.
Democrats took turns debating overnight, using all of their allotted floor time on speeches against the nomination and delaying the nearly party-line 52-47 vote on the longtime GOP senator from Alabama to almost 7:30 p.m. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) voted for Sessions, and Sessions voted “present.”
Democrats took similar action in the lead-up to Tuesday afternoon’s historic, tie-breaking vote on GOP mega-donor Betsy Devos to helm the U.S. Department of Education.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) Tuesday evening read from a 1986 letter penned by Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow and a civil rights activist in her own right, opposing the then-U.S. attorney’s failed nomination to the federal bench.
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“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,” King wrote in the introduction to her ten-page letter, which the Washington Post published last month in full for the first time. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
Republicans Silence King’s Voice—And Warning
Senate Republicans silenced King’s voice, forcing Warren to stop reading the letter after alleging she had violated a chamber rule in criticizing one of their own on the floor.
“The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said, quoting King’s warning, not Warren’s, that someone who “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens” should not ascend the judiciary’s ranks.
“I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate,” Warren retorted.
McConnell nevertheless railroaded through a party-line 49-43 vote in what the Washington Post characterized as an “extraordinarily rare move” to rebuke Warren and bar her from speaking throughout the remaining debate on Sessions. Republicans rejected an attempt by Democrats to reinstate Warren’s ability to participate.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” McConnell said, sparking what news outlets have called a “new battle cry” and “weaponized meme” for those who oppose the Republican agenda.
Republicans have repeatedly flouted the arcane debate rule, according to the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). In May 2016, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) called out the “sad, sorry legacy” of then-Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and expressed hope that “this institution will be cursed less with his cancerous leadership.”
At least four of Warren’s male colleagues, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Tom Udall (D-NM), subsequently read King’s letter on the floor without any GOP objection.
Sessions’ Record Fulfills King’s Warning
The Senate had been expected to confirm Sessions, President Trump’s so-called law-and-order pick for the top spot at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), even though he is one of the few members of Congress who didn’t condemn Trump’s boasting about sexually assaulting women in leaked hot-mic footage during the 2016 campaign.
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans in Sessions’ confirmation hearings largely dismissed his abysmal record on a broad range of rights—including, but not limited to, voting, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights, all of which are intertwined.
As a darling of radical anti-choice group Operation Rescue, Sessions could choose not to prosecute escalating anti-choice violence and harassment under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which makes it a federal crime to use force, the threat of force, or physical obstruction to prevent people from obtaining or providing reproductive health-care services. The statute provides for civil remedies for blocking access to abortion facilities, including fines against those found liable.
Although Sessions testified that he would enforce the FACE Act for people seeking abortion care, he quickly added a caveat: “I’m not in favor of that—I am pro-life.”
Dr. Willie Parker, Physicians for Reproductive Health board chair and a prominent abortion care provider who recently spoke with Rewire, cautioned that Sessions would oversee the related National Task Force on Violence Against Health Providers, “including its resources and priority status within the DOJ.”
“Based on his record as a lawmaker, we are profoundly concerned with Senator Sessions’ ability to protect reproductive health care providers and our patients in the role of attorney general,” Parker said in a statement prior to the Senate’s final vote.
Parker warned about the damage Sessions could do to reproductive justice.
“We have deep concerns regarding how Sessions would treat communities of color—communities that are already targeted by restrictive reproductive health laws,” Parker said. “As reproductive health care providers, we are dedicated to helping women and men exercise their right to lives of autonomy, dignity, self-determination, and opportunity for all people. Sessions would not protect these fundamental human rights. He is simply not fit to serve as the nation’s highest ranking law enforcement official.”
Civil rights writ large could face a significant rollback under Attorney General Sessions. Rewire’s Jessica Mason Pieklo wrote that given Sessions’ record, there’s every reason to believe that his commitment to “law and order” means exactly what “civil rights advocates have born witness to it meaning: ‘a language accompanied by a political movement that succeeded in putting the vast majority of blacks back in their place,’ as Michelle Alexander put it in The New Jim Crow.”
Coretta Scott King echoed these sentiments in her 1986 letter. She wrote that confirming Sessions at the time would “irreparably damage the work of my husband.”