Senate Confirms Sessions as Attorney General

SENATE CONFIRMS JEFF SESSIONS AS ATTORNEY GENERAL: After long and tense partisan debate, the Senate voted to confirm Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General. Senator Joe Manchin was the only Democrat to vote for him, NPR reported.

Nan Aron, president of our sister organization Alliance for Justice, criticized Republicans for their conduct in the hearing and confirmation process and said it “represents a low point in the history of the Senate” in a statement. Aron argued that this “raises the stakes for the upcoming hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. It is essential that the process for Gorsuch be thorough, deliberative, and respectful of all sides, and that Gorsuch fully answer questions about his ability to be an independent check on the executive branch as the Constitution prescribes.”

TRUMP ACCUSES BLUMENTHAL OF LYING ABOUT GORSUCH CRITICISMS: Senator Richard Blumenthal said that Judge Neil Gorsuch told him he found Trump’s attacks on Judge Robart, the federal judge who blocked his travel ban, “disheartening” and “demoralizing.” Gorsuch’s spokesman Ron Bonjean confirmed that Gorsuch used those words in his meeting with Blumenthal. The quotes were also confirmed by other senators, reported CNN.

Despite the criticisms being confirmed, Trump accused Blumenthal of lying about what Gorsuch said in a tweet: “Sen.Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie), now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?”

In response to Trump’s disbelief, Blumenthal stated “there’s no question that Judge Gorsuch said to me that he found these attacks on the judiciary to be disheartening and demoralizing,” quoted The Washington Examiner. “He made that statement to me, his spokesperson confirmed it, in fact he has made that same statement to many of my colleagues.”

Blumenthal went onto urge Gorsuch to “make that statement publicly,” yet Gorsuch declined. “Behind closed doors, Judge Gorsuch expressed disappointment with President Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, but a Supreme Court Justice must prove that he has the courage and independence to stand up to a President in public,” Blumenthal said, according to The Hill.

CNN: Sen. Warren Silenced During Sessions Debate

ELIZABETH WARREN SILENCED BY SENATE GOP: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell charged Senator Elizabeth Warren with violating Senate rules against impugning another senator during a Tuesday night floor speech opposing Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, reported CNN.

Warren was reading from a letter written in 1986 by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., which opposed Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship. The letter stated that “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.”

McConnell claimed that Warren’s reading of the letter violated Rule XIX, which prohibits Senators from ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.”  Senate Republicans upheld the rebuke by a vote of 49 to 43, which removes Warren’s ability to speak during the remaining hours of debate on Sessions’ nomination, according to NBC.

Senator Cory Booker stated that he was “proud tonight of Sen. Warren. She stood and told her truth. To see this body act as it did tonight is disappointing to me,” reported The Hill. Booker tweeted that McConnell didn’t just silence Warren – “he silenced civil rights icon Coretta Scott King.”

TRUMP TO MEET WITH MODERATE DEMOCRATS TO GAIN GORSUCH VOTE: President Trump invited Senate Democrats from multiple red states to lunch “in hopes of wooing their support for his Supreme Court nominee,” reported CNN. The four senators invited are all up for reelection in 2018, and among the 10 senators facing pressure from conservative and liberal groups – including our sister organization Alliance for Justice, reported Time.

“It’s full steam ahead,” Nan Aron, President of Alliance for Justice, told Time. “We plan to win this fight.”

Alliance for Justice was also listed among SCOTUSblog’s key groups in the Supreme Court confirmation process.

IMMIGRATION BAN LIKELY TO GO TO SCOTUS: “A Justice Department lawyer on Tuesday said courts should not second-guess President Trump’s targeted travel ban, drawing skepticism from a three-judge federal appeals panel weighing the limits of executive authority in cases of national security,” reported The New York Times.

The court is expected to deliver its decision on President Trump’s immigration ban within days. However, “no matter how the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rules — in a decision that is expected within days — an appeal to the United States Supreme Court is likely,” the Times continued.

Trump to Announce SCOTUS Pick February 2nd

TRUMP NARROWS SCOTUS LIST TO FOUR?: Above the Law reported that Judges Neil Gorsuch, Thomas Hardiman, William Pryor, and Raymond Kethledge top Trump’s list for the Supreme Court. The National Law Journal outlined a few key facts on Gorsuch, including his opposition to class actions.

Judge Gorsuch has “challenged the notion that courts should defer to administrative agencies when they interpret the law,” according to CNN. Gorsuch’s position on the issue “is more extreme than Justice Scalia…it would be hard to overstate the damage it would cause this nation and the American people,” Dan Goldberg, legal director of our sister organization Alliance for Justice told CNN.

“We are prepared to oppose every name on Trump’s list,” Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, said in a New York Times article. “The progressive, civil rights community will be united in opposition to either of those prospects or anyone else on the list.”

President Trump announced via Twitter that he will name his nominee next Thursday, February 2nd.

LAWSUIT SEEKS MORE INFORMATION ON SESSIONS: A suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asserts that eight federal agencies have failed to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to Sen. Jeff Sessions’ record. According to The Hill, journalist Jason Leopold and Ryan Shapiro, who filed the suit, feel the record will “shed light on Sessions’ history as a state and federal attorney general and as a lawmaker.”

At the Montgomery Advertiser, Constitutional Accountability Center President Elizabeth Wydra warned that Sessions “misrepresents ‘equal and impartial justice,’” stating that “his extensive record – at times defying fundamental protections written in the text and underscored by the history of the U.S. Constitution – offers little evidence that he can be ‘the People’s lawyer’ and fairly execute the mission of the Department his is nominated to lead.”

Politico: Trump Plans to Announce SCOTUS Nominee Next Week

TRUMP TO DISCUSS SCOTUS WITH MCCONNELL, SCHUMER, FEINSTEIN: “President Donald Trump will meet Tuesday afternoon with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to discuss his Supreme Court choice, according to an administration official,” Politico reported.  

McConnell stated that he is “confident we’ll get a Supreme Court nominee confirmed,” in a FOX News Sunday interview. McConnell has also refused to rule out the use of the “nuclear option,” which would reduce the majority needed to confirm the nominee from 60 to 51 votes.

According to the LA Times, Judge Neil Gorsuch is now the leading contender for Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. 

SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE DELAYS SESSIONS VOTE: Senator Dianne Feinstein requested to delay the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Jeff Sessions’ Attorney General nomination until next week, citing the need for more time to review the nominee and his records. “This nomination is a very big deal,” said Feinstein in an article at The Hill. “Our staff needs time to go through these answers, and we need time to put them in context.”

The vote will be held next week.

SESSIONS WILL NOT RECUSE HIMSELF FROM DOJ TRUMP INVESTIGATIONS: Sessions expressed to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he is “not aware of a basis to recuse myself” from investigations involving the president and does not see a problem in impartiality, despite his role in Trump’s campaign for the presidency, reported Politico. “If a specific matter arose where I believed my impartiality might reasonably be questioned, I would consult with Department ethics officials regarding the most appropriate way to proceed,” said Sessions.

USA Today Editorial: Sessions “Would Not Be Our Choice”

CIVIL RIGHTS RECORD CONTINUES TO PLAGUE SESSIONS: Sessions’ “encouraging promises” at his confirmation hearing “cannot erase his often hostile record on civil rights, nor grave concerns about whether he will rise to the toughest challenges of the job” of Attorney General, wrote the USA Today editorial board.

“As the nation marks the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, the future of civil rights in this country will soon rest in the hands of a new president and in large part his attorney general, who must champion the rights of all Americans. President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for that job, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is a troubling one on that score,” the editorial continued.

Sessions’ troubling civil rights record has prompted multiple Democratic senators to reject Sessions, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif,), Al Franken (D-Minn,), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), reported The Huffington Post. According to Buzzfeed’s Legal Editor Chris Geidner, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider Sessions’ nomination on January 24th.

TRUMP TEAM PREPS FOR SCOTUS BATTLE: Trump has started meeting with potential Supreme Court candidates – including Judge William Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit, according to Above the Law. Trump has previously vowed quick action to fill the empty Supreme Court Seat, with plans to announce a nominee “within about two weeks” of his inauguration, according to The New York Times.

Newsweek has published short profiles on three of the nominees; William Pryor, Diane Sykes, and Thomas Hardiman. Our sister organization, the Alliance for Justice, has reviewed all of the names on Trump’s short list, and has compiled the records and biographies of those individuals in their Trump Reports.

While Trump meets with potential nominees, his team, “led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, is gently sussing out what it would take to win enough support in the Senate to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court — a surprisingly tough prospect with the threat of a filibuster looming and a quick deadline set by Trump,” reported CNN. Republicans need to sway eight Democrats to meet the 60-vote threshold needed to supersede any filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee.

NY Times on Sessions: ‘Little Hope That He Has Changed’ His Thinking

After Day 1 of a two-day hearing on Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination as Attorney General, NPR listed these five top takeaways: “Defending his record on race. …Recuse from Clinton investigations. …Condemning waterboarding. …No to a Muslim ban and registry. …[From protestors,] ‘No Trump. No KKK. No Fascist USA.'”

While a grilling of the Alabama Republican was forecast by some, the Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats’ questioning of their colleague was relatively mild. “Democrats rarely offered more than tepid and predictable criticisms,” said a New York Times editorial about Sessions delivering “smooth talk” before the panel. Our sister organization Alliance for Justice (see Gavel Grab) and others have raised concerns about his unraveling hard-fought civil rights and human rights gains if confirmed, and the editorial concluded:

“Mr. Sessions did nothing on Tuesday to dispel the understandable fears that he would stall if not reverse much of that progress. His defense against charges of racism that caused the Senate to reject him for a federal judgeship in 1986 was largely to say it hurt his feelings to be called racist, but his two decades in the Senate provide little hope that he has changed.”

Editorialized The Newark Star-Ledger, “Given his past comments and dubious record, Sessions faces a high bar to earn the public’s trust. He didn’t hurdle it today, by leaving crucial questions unanswered.”

Liberals had hoped for fireworks on Day 1 but saw instead a domination of “senatorial courtesy,” according to CNN. Its report mentioned AFJ President Nan Aron’s view. She “said the hearing showcased the ‘traditional courtesy Senators extend to one another,’ but she said she expected a ‘radically different approach’ for the upcoming Supreme Court hearing. ‘Senator [Dianne] Feinstein is as tough and as committed as they come, and the fate of the Supreme Court will be an important part of her legacy,’ Aron said.” Feinstein is the committee’s ranking Democrat.

On Wednesday, the witness list for Sessions’ second day of hearings was devoted to supporters and detractors, according to a Washington Post blog. The themes of the hearings so far were captured by these New York Times and Washington Post articles. At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick wrote, “True Lies: There was one moment in Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing that revealed why so many are so terrified of him.”

With a Grilling Looming, Confirmation Hearing for Sessions Under Way

SESSIONS’ CONFIRMATION HEARINGS UNDER WAY: The Senate Judiciary Committee began two days of hearings on Tuesday on the Attorney General nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, as the Alabama Republican faced a potential barrage of questions about his civil rights record and staunchly conservative views.

“On all the issues and matters covered by the Department of Justice, he’s taken positions hostile to the very mission of the department in its work in civil rights and civil liberties,”  Nan Aron, president of our sister organization Alliance for Justice, told US News & World Report for its curtain-raising article. “He will, given what we know about him, roll back the progress made in civil and human rights.”

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the latter described by The New York Times as a “hero of the civil rights movement,” were planning to testify in opposition to Sessions’ confirmation. Politico reported that the transition team of President-elect Donald Trump had carefully prepared a strategy for Sessions to combat any allegations of racism. And his hearing began promptly on Tuesday despite a late-hour Washington Post article raising questions about whether Sessions had met his disclosure obligations, titled “Sessions failed to disclose oil interests as required, ethics experts say.”

Other coverage on the eve of the hearings included CNN, “Matthew Shepard’s mother blasts Trump AG pick Sessions’ votes on hate crimes law”; Washington Post, “Sessions to press image of tough lawman and independent voice at attorney general hearings”; Mic, “Read Jeff Sessions’ opening statements before his attorney general hearing”; and Mother Jones, “Jeff Sessions Has a History of Blocking Black Judges: ‘The senator has a problem putting African Americans on the federal bench in Alabama.'”

SUPREME COURT VACANCY: From Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court picks, SCOTUSblog profiled Justice Joan Larsen of the Michigan Supreme Court. BuzzFeed examined potential changes in the direction of the court under Trump.

AFJ: Sessions Not in Same League as Key Former Attorneys General

As U.S. senators prepare to question Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, a Republican colleague, The Nation has published an essay by Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron comparing him unfavorably to trailblazing former occupants of the office.

The commentary by the head of our sister organization is headlined, “Jeff Sessions Is Just Not in the Same League as Former Attorneys General: From Herbert Brownell to Robert F. Kennedy to Loretta Lynch, attorneys general have upheld the law and fought for justice. Would Sessions?” Her essay begins:

“Amid claims and counterclaims about Senator Jeff Sessions’s record on civil rights, it is important to step back from the clamor and take Sessions’s measure against that of leading occupants of the modern attorney general’s office. No matter their political party, trailblazers at the Department of Justice helped presidents and the nation take major steps forward in establishing civil-rights law and protections. Forward-looking attorneys general, along with outstanding career attorneys, have helped to desegregate schools and universities in the face of harsh resistance; to put an end to Jim Crow laws; and to confront discrimination in our of criminal and civil justice systems. They showed moral conviction with their actions.

“It is only right, then, that senators weighing confirmation of Donald Trump’s nominee in upcoming days ask themselves: Is Jeff Sessions of the moral caliber to stand alongside predecessors who made such great strides in advancing civil rights? We believe the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Sessions’s unequivocal record of racial insensitivity and hostility to protecting civil rights, and his extreme-right ideology, suggest he would willfully work to reverse the decades of civil-rights progress that Robert F. Kennedy and others who occupied the top Justice Department job boldly set in place.”

AFJ’s opposition to Sessions’ confirmation also was cited in a Yahoo!Finance article, and its advocacy for a delay in his hearings was mentioned by blackpressUSA.com. Meanwhile, Ari Berman wrote at The Nation, “Jeff Sessions Could Return Criminal Justice to the Jim Crow Era”;  Slate published an article titled “Bad Law: A look at the terrible things Jeff Sessions did as attorney general of Alabama”; and The New York Times Magazine reported, “A Voter Fraud Case Jeff Sessions Lost and Can’t Escape.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to start two days of hearings on Sessions’ confirmation on Tuesday.

NY Times Editorial Demands to Know, ‘What Are You Hiding, Jeff Sessions?’

HE REQUIRES ‘A THOROUGH VETTING,’ EDITORIAL SAYS: On the eve of confirmation hearings for President-elect Trump’s Attorney General nominee, a New York Times editorial headline asks, “What Are You Hiding, Jeff Sessions?” The editorial demands a thorough vetting of the Alabama Republican’s record and qualifications and tracks — and links to — a report by our sister organization, Alliance for Justice, and allied groups about glaring gaps in materials he has submitted in reply to a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire. The editorial states:

“If anyone requires a thorough vetting, it’s Mr. Sessions, the Republican senator from Alabama who trails behind him a toxic cloud of hostility to racial equality, voting rights, women’s rights, criminal justice reform and other issues at the heart of the Justice Department’s mandate. Yet in their eagerness to act on his nomination, Senate Republicans seem unconcerned that Mr. Sessions, who has made appropriate financial disclosures, has failed to turn over dozens — possibly hundreds — of documents that the committee specifically requests in its standard questionnaire, including transcripts of speeches, interviews, opinion pieces and other public remarks.”

“This sets up the first big test of Democrats’ willingness to push back against Mr. Trump’s radical cabinet picks. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat, needs to take the lead in ensuring that Americans know as much as possible about the man who would be the nation’s top law-enforcement official. The attorney general is too important an office, and Mr. Sessions’s views are too extreme — as Republicans themselves saw 30 years ago — to allow his nomination to sail through without a fight.

Three decades ago, Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship failed in the Republican-controlled Senate after a bipartisan committee vote. There was a flurry of news articles and commentary about Sessions’ latest nomination over the weekend, including TIME, “Jeff Sessions Hopes to Escape His History of Racial Controversy at Confirmation Hearing”; CNN.com, “Jeff Sessions faces ‘Washington’s bloodsport”; Daily Beast, “Jeff Sessions Wanted to ‘Drop the Case’ Against KKK Lynching, Attorney Testified”; Washington Post, “Jeff Sessions should have been a tough sell in the Senate, but he’s too nice”; John J. Donohue III and Max Schoening in a New York Times op-ed,  “The Grim Reaper of Alabama”; and a New York Times profile, “Jeff Sessions, a Lifelong Outsider, Finds the Inside Track.”

SUPREME COURT VACANCY: “Fresh off spending more than $7 million to keep [a Supreme Court] seat vacant under President Barack Obama, the deep-pocketed Judicial Crisis Network will plow at least $10 million into advertisements urging a number of moderate Senate Democrats to support [Donald] Trump’s choice,” Politico reported. Federal appeals court Judge Thomas Hardiman, on a list of potential Trump picks, was profiled by Newsweek, and David Lat handicapped Trump’s “shortlist” at Above the Law blog.

More Opposition to Sen. Sessions as his Confirmation Hearings Loom

SESSIONS ‘HOSTILE TO EVERY COMMUNITY’ THAT DOJ PROTECTS:  Congressional Black Caucus members. Common Cause. And a national coalition of groups fighting to end domestic violence and sexual assault. These are the latest opponents of Sen. Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as Attorney General to get news media coverage in advance of his confirmation hearings next week (from CNN, Huffington Post, and another Huffington Post article, respectively).

“He has been hostile to every community that DOJ is supposed to protect from discrimination,” Indiana Democratic Rep. Andre Carson, a Black Caucus member, told reporters. Karen Hobert Flynn, the Common Cause president, said, “His past statements and actions indicate that if confirmed as attorney general he would fail to fully uphold the Voting Rights Act as it stands today.” Warned the coalition of women’s advocates, “Senator Sessions’ history leads us to question whether he will vigorously seek to ensure that all victims and survivors of gender-based violence, particularly vulnerable populations and those at the margins of society, have access to vitally needed services and legal protections.”

Our sister organization the Alliance for Justice has actively documented decades of gaps in Sessions’ replies to a Senate questionnaire (see Gavel Grab), gaining AFJ mention in recent Daily Beast and Salon accounts. In other coverage, The Washington Examiner blogged about an ad blitz in support of Sessions from the Judicial Crisis Network, and Mark Oppenheimer wrote in a Los Angeles Times commentary about Sessions’ “belief that prosecutors are at a disadvantage, indeed are something of an endangered species, overrun by the vicious defense bar.”

DEMOCRATS DISCUSS COURT NOMINATION APPROACH: A blog of The Washington Post reported, “Democrats stumble toward a Supreme Court strategy,” and a Politico headline said, “Biden: Democrats should give Trump’s SCOTUS nominee a hearing and a vote.” (See an earlier Gavel Grab post about Democratic Leader Charles Schumer’s hard-line remarks.) Meanwhile, Robert Schlesinger wrote at US News & World Report, “The New Supreme Precedent: Republicans rewrote Supreme Court confirmation rules last year – now they have to live with them.”

In The New York Times, Linda Greenhouse said she wished Chief Justice John Roberts had spoken out in his year-end report to say that Senate Republicans’ refusal to fill a Supreme Court vacancy for almost a year “was an unfortunate development that should not be permitted to become the norm.” And at Bloomberg View, Noah Feldman discussed “The Incredible Shrinking Supreme Court.”