Senator Jeff Sessions Risks Party’s Future in Supreme Court Hearings

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Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama, little known to the country, will lead the charge against Obama’s Hispanic nominee, Sonia Sotomayor of New York

Editor’s Note: I would like to thank the Huffington Post investigative fund for partial funding for this story.

by Glynn Wilson

When the Senate Judiciary Committee convenes Monday, July 13 to begin advise and consent hearings on President Barack Obama’s first nominee to the United States Supreme Court, potentially the first Hispanic on the court, the American people will learn all there is to know about Sonia Sotomayor, an appeals court judge from New York who will most likely be confirmed to replace Justice David Souter. But they may not know a thing about the senator who is expected to enter the national limelight for the first time as the lead inquisitor in her confirmation, who faces grave political risks for his party if things are mishandled and go wrong.

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Senator Jeff Sessions

Jefferson “Jeff” Beauregard Sessions III, the ranking minority Republican on the committee elevated by his colleagues to take the lead in questioning Ms. Sotomayor, is an Old South senator with an Old South name from the Deep South state of Alabama. He is an arch-conservative with a voting record ranked in the top five most conservative in the Senate by the National Review. He has voted consistently with a majority of his Republican colleagues 93 percent of the time, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Sessions has already indicated he will want to question Ms. Sotomayor on whether her empathy as a Hispanic from her time on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund will translate into favoritism or “activism” for certain groups. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich started that fight when he was quoted from a Twitter Tweet calling her a racist. Sessions will have to tread a fine line on the race issue since he was turned down for a federal judgeship in 1986 for making racist remarks himself — by the very Senate committee he now leads on the minority side. He called the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American,” and he said the Ku Klux Klan boys were all right with him — until he found out they were “pot smokers,” according to testimony from his failed confirmation-hearing transcript.

That story will be told time and again over the next few days by the nation’s top newspapers, including the New York Times, on cable news and blogs all over the country. But it may not be the most important thing people need to know about the senator who is sitting in judgment on who will be allowed to serve on the nation’s highest court to shape the future of American law for a generation.

What they need to know is that Mr. Sessions has been on a crusade on the side of corporate America and against the rights of workers and juries for many years.

His support from and for large corporations, especially the big banks, insurance companies, energy giants and military contractors, and his corresponding support of deregulation in those industries as well opposition to health care reform, is as responsible for the economic meltdown in America as anything else, many economists agree.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords and professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, suggests a fundamental reason for the economic crisis in a column for Business Age: “the dominance of the Chicago school of economics, with its belief in the self-regulating properties of unfettered markets. This belief justified the deregulation of financial markets … which grossly underestimated the amount of risk in the system.”

In pushing for health-care reform, President Barack Obama and others have said the current health-care system is a big cause of the nation’s economic troubles. The spiraling costs and inconsistencies in the amount and quality of care people get is a “ticking time bomb” for the federal budget.

Health care accounts for about one-sixth of the U.S. economy, more than any other industry. Spending on health care totals about $2.5 trillion, 17.5 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (a measure of the value of all goods and services produced in the United States). It is up from 13.8 percent of GDP in 2000 and 5.2 percent in 1960, back when health care spending totaled just $27.5 billion, 1 percent of the level today.

Yet Senator Jeff Sessions opposes any public option to fix the health care system with legislation, totally supporting the position of big business, whose over-paid managers want to keep all the profits in private hands.

Alabama state Senator Roger Bedford, the Democrat from Russellville who lost to Sessions in his first run for the U.S. Senate in 1996, said Sessions has been part of the problem in Washington.

“One of the reasons we are having this financial meltdown is the lack of regulation and accountability of the business community,” Bedford said in an interview. “Part of the reason is the push for tort reform, to hold (corporations) harmless for lyin’, cheatin’ and stealin’.”

Bedford contrasted Sessions’ record to his senior colleague in the Senate, Richard Shelby, who has stood up for consumers, helped recruit jobs and industry and build infrastructure, he claims.

Sessions, on the other hand, “has voted with McCain against that. He has always been more concerned with the philosophical views of judges than what’s good for working families in Alabama,” Bedford said. “His record’s consistent.”

That is not just a matter of opinion. It is a matter of documented fact.

The conservative Wall Street Journal did an expose on Sessions back in October, 2007, which documented a conflict of interest on Sessions’ part in using his position in the Senate to help some of his top contributors in the banking industry. The story did not gain any legs at the time because no one knew the recession started in December 2007 until December 2008, and President George W. Bush had not announced his first big government bailout of banks and insurance companies.

In the story, it was not just a payoff to Sessions’ campaign contributors the Journal was concerned about. Mr. Sessions and his wife owned stock in two of the institutions that would have been shielded by an amendment pushed by Sessions that would have allowed banks to avoid paying billions of dollars a year in royalties on technology that converts paper checks into electronic images. Mr. and Mrs. Sessions at that time owned shares in Compass Bancshares Inc. of Birmingham, Ala., valued at between $115,002 and $300,000, and his wife owned stock in Citigroup Inc., valued at between $15,001 and $50,000, according to financial-disclosure records. Sessions was quoted as saying those contributions had nothing to do with his support for the amendment.

But over the years, while Sessions fought along with his conservative colleagues like Trent Lott of Mississippi for deregulation of the banking industry, which many economists now say was largely responsible for the breakdowns that led to the need for massive government bailouts under then-President Bush and President Obama, the nation’s big banks were among his top campaign supporters. Between 1996 and 2006, records show, big banks donated more than $320,000 to Sessions’ campaigns.

All the way back to when Sessions’ was a state attorney general in the 1990s, he has been a vocal proponent of imposing limits on civil liability claims in court, supporting legislation that would shield handgun manufacturers and doctors from lawsuits, for example, making him a favorite of the big insurance companies as well. The insurance heavy-hitter Torchmark Corp. is among his top contributors, giving $43,600 over the course of his career, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield has given him $34,700, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Sessions is also supported by energy giants such as Alabama Power, which reward him for his rabid anti-environmentalism. He always ranks near the bottom of every environmental scorecard put out by the non-profit groups, including the League of Conservation Voters. Southern Company has given Sessions at least $162,765, according to verifiable records, and the company’s law firm, Balch and Bingham, has rewarded him with contributions of at least $123,775. The coal giant Drummond Company has pumped $74,650 into his campaign coffers, and the polluter Vulcan Materials another $52,150.

Then you come down the list to his favorite defense contractors, and you see that Collazo Enterprises, a company that started up in Huntsville to work on the so-called Star Wars missile defense shield, gave Sessions $64,900 — and was subsequently rewarded with millions of dollars in earmarks, otherwise known as “pork,” an Old South term for pork barrel spending. Collazo was followed closely by the defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which has given Sessions $47,150 over his career, not counting what doesn’t show up on paper in all kinds of hidden PACs. This also does not count secret cash contributions, which still go on in Alabama. Nor does it count companies the senator shares silent partnerships with, some rumored to be CIA front companies. Sessions also awarded a similar earmark to the Westar Aerospace and Defense Group in Huntsville, another intelligence-defense startup in Sessions’ state supported by taxpayer money.

Some key highlights of Sessions’ voting record over the years shows he is a tool of big business and the military and no friend of the American worker, women, veterans, children or the sick in need of breakthroughs in stem cell research.

He voted against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, without which economists say the economic recession would have been much worse.

Sessions is on the record opposing any legislation to curb greenhouse gases due to global warming and he is in favor of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

He voted against the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, giving women equal pay under the law.

In October, 2005, he was one of only nine senators who voted against a Senate amendment to a House bill that prohibited cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment of individuals in the custody or under the physical control of the U.S. government. In other words, he came out in favor of torture, a policy that military experts say leads to more torture of American soldiers serving abroad.

Sessions has taken a strong stand against any form of citizenship for illegal immigrants. He was one of the most vocal critics of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, the one time he defied the Bush administration in eight years, and he was one of 37 Senators to vote against funding for embryonic stem cell research.

As for his personal background, Sessions was born on December 24, 1946, in Hybart, Alabama, near the famous town of Selma in the state’s Black Belt. He attended public schools there, “barefooted,” according his profile on Wikipedia, then went on to become student body president at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, from where he graduated in 1969. He then attended the University of Alabama School of Law in Tuscaloosa and graduated in 1973, and was admitted to the state bar that year. He practiced law in Russellville from 1973 to 1975 and served in the U.S. Army reserves as a captain. He then moved to Mobile to practice law in 1977, and was appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan as a U.S. attorney, where he served until 1993.

He ran for Alabama’s top law enforcement job in 1994 and was elected attorney general that year, where he served until 1996, when he ran and was elected as a Republican to the U.S. Senate. He was reelected in 2002 and 2008.

He was elevated to ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania announced he was switching parties to run as a Democrat rather than facing strong Republican opposition in a primary campaign. Specter, who also voted against Sessions’ confirmation as a federal appellate judge in 1986 along with then-Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama, is expected to be reelected in his state as a Democrat. He will be leading the charge on the majority side of the aisle during the confirmation hearings.

Former U.S. attorney Doug Jones, who was an aide to Heflin in the 1980s and in Washington for Sessions’ losing confirmation fight in 1986, said if given the choice he would rather have a Democrat and a judge like Heflin in that committee spot than a Republican like Sessions. But he pointed out that Sessions does have a history of being “deferential” to presidential appointees going all the way back to the Clinton years.

“There’s got to be a fine line he’s going to walk between playing to the conservative base of the Republican Party, of which he is full-fledged member, and his record of being deferential to presidential selections,” Jones said in an interview.

You can go back and watch Sessions’ floor speeches and see the softball questions he asked in advice and consent confirmation hearings especially for Bush’s appointees to the court.

Sessions is vulnerable on that issue, on the race issue because of his own past, and he is vulnerable when he starts getting into the Republican spin issue of “activist judges,” which will inevitably come up, Jones acknowledged.

“There are plenty of people who say Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia are the two most activist judges on the entire federal bench,” he said.

As for Sessions’ record of supporting big business, he is tied to that, Jones said, “because that is his bent. He is a chamber of commerce senator, no question about that, and that will be reflective in his questioning.”

He knows Sessions well enough to know the senator is smart enough to couch his questioning in careful, diplomatic terms, not racist terms, even when talking about cases such as the white firefighters from New Haven, Connecticut who just won a victory with the Roberts Supreme Court — even though Sotomayor ruled against the town’s promotion test because too few minorities qualified.

Those cases are not about race to Sessions, Jones contends. “They are all about business and quotas and making sure businesses and cities can hire the best — regardless of race.”

That’s right up Sessions’ alley. While Sessions is being put up as the hatchet man in this fight, he will want to appear to be a lawyer and a statesman.

The political risk is this, Jones says: “If Republicans, even a white Republican from the South, comes after the first Hispanic nominee for the Supreme Court in a vicious or mean spirited way, then politically that’s going to be damaging for the Republican Party.” The party has already lost some of the gains picked up by Bush and Karl Rove in 2000 and 2004 to Obama in 2008, he said. “They will lose the rest if they handle it wrong.”

Glynn Wilson is a veteran investigative reporter, free-lance writer and editor and publisher of the independent New American Journal. This story was originally published in the Locust Fork News-Journal with investigative reporting funding from the then new Huffington Post.

© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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  3 comments for “Senator Jeff Sessions Risks Party’s Future in Supreme Court Hearings

  1. Kaye Kiker
    February 23, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Sessions hasn’t been a Republican since the Tea Party came into power. The Republican Party is but a ghost of it’s former self.

  2. William Barnes
    February 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Great article. Well researched and factual in all respects. The questions voters should address and determine before and on election day is: Does Jeff Sessions truly represent what they (the voters) want as a representative in the United States Senate for the next SIX years? Does Jeff Sessions represent the people (main street), or does he represent big business and special interests (Wall Street)? Can someone else better represent the people of Alabama? We do know this: It isn’t going to be a Democrat who unseats Jeff Sessions this election cycle because there are no Democratic Party candidates qualified to run against Senator Sessions because no one stepped up to the Democratic Party platform to challenge Jeff Sessions gor his United States Senate position and chair. Therefore, the voters do not have choices at election time which translates into a threat to our democratic process. Incumbents like uncontested elections, especially when large campaign contributions flow into their campaign coffers, or warchests.

  3. February 26, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    Good points.

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