The opening day of confirmation hearings for Senator Jeff Sessions was projected to be one of those heated and partisan affairs. Democrats would remind everyone that the Alabama senator was rejected for a federal judgeship by a Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee three decades earlier over allegations that he made racist remarks during his time as a prosecutor at the Justice Department. Sessions would be consequently flogged as an extremist and a racist.
An open letter sent to the chairman and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, signed by over 1,400 law professors from 180 law schools across 49 states, expressed worry that Sessions hasn’t changed much. “Nothing in Senator Sessions’ public life since 1986,” they wrote, “has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge.”
Sessions understood that his nomination for attorney general produced plenty of backlash on the left, particularly from leaders like civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis, who testified against Sessions the next day. So right out of the gate, Sessions knew he had to get out in front of questions on immigration, criminal justice reform and civil rights.
With the exception of several dust-ups in which he seemed not to know whether he would prosecute journalists for working with leakers and a dispute over his support for the Voting Rights Act, he came away from the six-hour hearing practically unscathed.
For one of the most conservative lawmakers in the U.S. Senate who is often categorized as a stubborn ideologue, Sessions did very well, defusing potential “gotcha” questions before they were even asked. He made the point repeatedly that just because he disagrees with the Supreme Court’s rulings on same-sex marriage, NSA surveillance and interrogation techniques, that doesn’t mean he won’t uphold the law as it is currently on the books.
Asked by Senator Diane Feinstein whether it was constitutional for the U.S. government to capture an American suspected of terrorist offenses and hold him or her indefinitely without charge, Sessions answered in much the same way that a civil libertarian from the ACLU would have: of course it wasn’t constitutional. And what about same-sex marriage, Democrats asked? Sessions argued that since the Supreme Court had already settled the issue, he would abide by their ruling.
One of the most surprising aspects of Sessions’ performance, though, was his remark that waterboarding was “absolutely improper and illegal,” an assessment that many members of Congress acknowledged years ago but one that Sessions has always been reluctant — if not downright opposed — to recognizing.
Over the last 15 years, Sessions has been one of the foremost defenders of the intelligence community’s right to use all means at its disposal under the law to keep Americans safe from another terrorist attack, including enhanced interrogation techniques that were blessed by President George W. Bush’s Justice Department. He’s opposed amendments and bills that would restrict interrogation practices. In 2005, he was one of only nine senators who voted against Senator John McCain’s Detainee Treatment Act, which forbid the government from using tactics on prisoners deemed to be “cruel, inhumane, or degrading.” Ten years later, he voted against McCain’s and Senator Russ Feinstein’s amendment that prohibited the use of any interrogation techniques not included in the Army Field Manuel.
That history notwithstanding, Sessions will now be responsible for enforcing those very same statutes. To his credit, there wasn’t anything at his confirmation hearing that led one to doubt his seriousness in doing so.