Major newspapers disappear Sessions' alleged history of racial insensitivity

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN & TOM ALLISON

On July 14, five major newspapers reported on Jeff Sessions' opening statement at the confirmation hearing of Judge Sonia Sotomayor without noting that, in 1986, Sessions' nomination as a U.S. district court judge was rejected following allegations that Sessions had a history of making racially charged comments.

On July 14, the nation's five major newspapers reported Sen. Jeff Sessions' (R-AL) opening statement at the confirmation hearing of Judge Sonia Sotoamyor without reporting in that day's print editions that, in 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions' nomination as a U.S. district court judge following testimony that reportedly included allegations that Sessions had a history of making racially charged comments. In addition, as noted by the Associated Press, Sessions' "nomination originally drew fire from civil rights groups because of his [1985] prosecution ... of three west Alabama civil rights activists on vote fraud charges. The three were acquitted by a federal court jury, prompting civil rights leaders to charge that the prosecution was an attempt to intimidate black voters."

Media Matters reviewed the coverage in the July 14 print editions of The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal.

In a June 6, 1986, report about the Judiciary Committee's rejection of Sessions' nomination, the AP described the allegations:

All eight Democrats on the committee voted against Sessions on both motions, as did Sen. Charles Mathias, R-Md. Another Republican on the panel, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, voted against recommending the nomination favorably but voted for sending the nomination to the full Senate with no recommendation.

[...]

The nomination originally drew fire from civil rights groups because of his prosecution last year of three west Alabama civil rights activists on vote fraud charges.

The three were acquitted by a federal court jury, prompting civil rights leaders to charge that the prosecution was an attempt to intimidate black voters to help ensure Denton's re-election.

Sessions denied those charges and defended the prosecution during his first appearance before the Judiciary Committee in March. But he soon faced new allegations that he had made a series of racially insensitive statements.

Witnesses accused Sessions of calling a black lawyer a "boy," of describing church and civil rights groups as "un-American," of agreeing with a statement that a white civil rights lawyer was a "disgrace to his race," and of saying he thought the Ku Klux Klan was all right until he learned members smoked marijuana.

Sessions returned to the committee last month and vigorously denied making any of the statements attributed to him. He insisted that his racial views were exactly the opposite of what his opponents had told the committee.

The 38-year-old prosecutor urged the committee to examine his record and the statements of support for his nomination from both black and white officials with whom he has worked.

Below are examples of these five newspapers' July 14 reporting on Sessions' opening statement. Each noted parts of Sessions' statement -- a statement that touched on issues of race and prejudice -- but none of them mentioned the allegations that reportedly were leveled against him during his own confirmation process, although some of these newspapers have reported on those allegations recently.

The Washington Post:

Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the committee's ranking Republican, praised Sotomayor's statement as "from the heart and direct," but earlier he had made clear that Republicans will challenge her speeches about how life experiences can form a judge's view of the law, and Obama's statement that understanding the real-life consequences of a decision is a necessary tool for a judge.

"I will not vote for, and no senator should vote for, anyone who will not render justice impartially," Sessions said. "Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law," he said. "In truth, it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom."

[...]

Sotomayor, dressed in black with a royal blue jacket and casting aside the crutches she has used for weeks because of a fractured ankle, was incidental to much of the action yesterday. After Sessions and the committee chairman, Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), escorted her to the witness table, she listened for hours as the senators discussed her, the president and the court, each with a seemingly different pronunciation of her name (it is "Soto-my-yore," according to the White House).

[...]

Sessions was careful not to strike too barbed a tone in his opening statement, saying that the hearing would be "respectful" and would consist of "a thoughtful dialogue and maybe some disagreements."

The New York Times:

Four of the panel's seven Republicans invoked the "wise Latina" reference to criticize her, with one, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, saying, "my career would have been over" if he had said something like that.

The ranking Republican on the panel, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said: "Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law. In truth it's more akin to politics. And politics has no place in the courtroom."

USA Today:

Senators get to question Sotomayor today. Republicans led by Alabama's Jeff Sessions told her they'll focus on her judicial philosophy. Even so, all paid tribute to her trailblazing role before a standing-room-only audience that included the judge's 82-year-old mother, Celina Sotomayor.

"I would hope that every American is proud that a Hispanic woman has been nominated to the Supreme Court," said deputy Senate Republican leader Jon Kyl, an Arizonan whose constituency is nearly 30% Hispanic.

"Unless you have a complete meltdown, you are going to get confirmed," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the judge.

Republicans focused on statements and rulings that they said suggest Sotomayor's bias in favor of minorities. "Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another," said Sessions, the panel's top-ranking Republican.

The Wall Street Journal:

The opening statements by senators on the Judiciary Committee featured frequent clashes between Democrats and Republicans over the proper role of judges and "empathy," the characteristic President Barack Obama has said he is seeking in his court nominees.

"No senator should vote for an individual ... who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their own personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the panel's ranking Republican. "Call it empathy, call it prejudice or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law."

[...]

Mr. Sessions suggested that Judge Sotomayor might seek to build "a brave new world where words have no meaning and judges are free to decide what facts they choose to see."

The Los Angeles Times:

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Sotomayor's mostly uncontroversial judicial opinions were "not a good test because those cases were necessarily restrained by precedent and the threat of reversal. . . . On the Supreme Court, those checks on judicial power will be removed and [her] philosophy will be allowed to reach full bloom."

Sessions said her speeches, in which she talked about how a "wise Latina" would reach a "better conclusion than a white male," were "shocking and offensive."

"I will not vote for -- no senator should vote for -- an individual ... who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their own personal background, gender, prejudices or sympathies to sway their decision," he said.

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