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Jeff Sessions, an extremist then and now

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's nominee for US attorney general, on Capitol Hill in Washington last month. AL DRAGO / NEW YORK TIMES

On Tuesday morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee will meet in a caucus room that has been the site for such historic events as the Watergate hearings, and Senator John Kennedy’s presidential campaign announcement. This ornate room has since been named for my friend, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and more recently senators have met in this room for the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Attorney General Eric Holder.

As senators prepare to gather in the Kennedy Caucus Room for the confirmation hearings of Senator Jeff Sessions to be attorney general of the United States, I cannot help but wonder what Ted would think. Thirty years ago he said this about the current nominee who was pending before the committee as a nominee to be a district court judge:


“Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past. It is inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a US attorney, let alone a US federal judge. He is, I believe, a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.” (Senator Edward Kennedy, March 13, 1986)

After four days of hearings and extensive testimony, Jeff Sessions’ nomination was rejected by a Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee. He was too extreme for Republicans in 1986. Now that he is nominated to be attorney general, we will see if the same person is still too extreme for Republicans.

Several decades have passed, so I expect senators will not only consider what was revealed in the previous confirmation hearings but will also look at what the nominee has said and done since that time.

When I pushed in 2009 to advance the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a bill championed by Kennedy, it was Sessions who sought to derail it. He asserted at a Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill that he was “not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination.”


When I worked across the aisle in 2013 to reauthorize and greatly expand the Violence Against Women Act to protect students, immigrants, LGBT victims, and those on tribal lands from domestic violence and sexual assault, Sessions was one of just a handful of Senate Republicans to oppose it.

And in 2015, it was Sessions who led the opposition to a resolution I offered in the Senate Judiciary Committee that simply reiterated the basic principle that “the United States must not bar individuals from entering into the United States based on their religion.” My amendment was supported by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the committee, including the Republican chairman.

Sessions has repeatedly stood in the way of efforts to promote and protect Americans’ civil rights. He did so even as other members of the Republican Party sought to work across the aisle to advance the cause of living up to our nation’s core values of equality and justice, just as Kennedy did so many times.

When Sessions comes into the Kennedy Caucus Room to appear before the Judiciary Committee as the nominee to be our nation’s top law enforcement officer, I plan to ask him about his opposition to so many important bipartisan efforts. The American people deserve to know whether he will enforce and defend the very civil rights laws that he opposed as a senator.


If we are to continue being a great nation, then survivors of sexual assault and hate crimes and religious bigotry all deserve to know that their civil and human rights will be protected by the attorney general of the United States. Given the divisive rhetoric of the Republican nominee for president last year, many are worried.

Tuesday marks the first public hearing to consider a nominee to the president-elect’s cabinet. I like to think that Ted Kennedy’s presence will be in the room named for him. I hope the American people will tune in.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.