WASHINGTON — The American Jewish Committee once sought to thwart Jeff Sessions’ ascension to a federal judgeship 30 years ago, but will now wait and see how the Senate confirmation process over his nomination to be the next attorney general goes. On Friday, President-elect Donald Trump announced Sessions’ appointment to be the chief legal officer in the next administration.
“In the course of confirmation hearings, there will be ample opportunity to address questions that were raised very publicly – and persuasively – three decades ago,” Jason Isaacson, AJC’s associate executive director for policy, told The Times of Israel Friday evening.
“What must also be evaluated are the Senator’s statements and actions in the intervening period – a period in which public attitudes and sensitivities on racial and other matters have evolved,” Isaacson added. “We look forward to that full examination.”
Since Trump stunned the political class last week and defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, the AJC has vowed to uphold a policy of not commenting on any of the nominations during the current round of appointments by Trump.
“Presidents get to choose their teams and we do not expect to comment on the appointment of every key adviser,” Isaacson said in a statement earlier this week, after Trump announced he would make Stephen Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, a popular website for the alt-right movement, his chief White House strategist.
But on Friday, a press release emerged from 1986 that showed AJC’s attempt to halt then-president Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Sessions to the US District Court in Alabama. At the time, Sessions was US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.
The AJC objected over statements Sessions allegedly made. The Senate Judiciary Committee went on to reject his nomination over the allegations, making him one of just two judicial nominees in some 50 years whose appointments were thwarted by that panel.
Hyman Bookbinder, AJC’s Washington representative at the time, cast the future senator of holding “a negative bias on civil rights and civil liberties issues.” Such a bias, he said, “cannot inspire confidence on the part of Black American citizens who have occasion to appear before him in a Federal courtroom that they would be treated no differently from white American citizens.”
The statement is dated April 8, 1986; the Sessions nomination was ultimately withdrawn less than four months later, on July 31, 1986.
During the confirmation hearings, several controversial statements Sessions was accused of making came to light. Former colleagues told the committee that he referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Council of Churches and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as “un-American” organizations that taught “un-American values.”
He also reportedly described a white civil rights attorney working in Alabama as a “disgrace to his race,” and admonished a black staffer to “be careful what he said to white folks” after he engaged in an argument with a white co-worker.
An African-American federal prosecutor, Thomas Figures, also testified that Sessions called him “boy” and said he approved of the Ku Klux Klan until he “found out they smoked pot.”
Sessions denied the accusations. “I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create,” he said in 1986. “I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks. I have supported civil rights activities in my state. I have done my job with integrity, equality and fairness for all.”
The AJC’s 1986 statement detailed those episodes, arguing that they were grounds for the dismissal of his appointment. “Suffice it to say that the sum total of his remarks raises the most serious issues as to whether Mr. Sessions possesses the requisite qualities to serve on the federal bench,” Bookbinder said.
The statement points out: “The American Jewish Committee’s policy has generally been to abstain from commenting on judicial appointments, but we feel compelled to make one of our rare exceptions in this case.”
In a statement on Thursday, AJC chief executive David Harris sought to reaffirm the organization’s principles and plan of action going forward, but stopped short of addressing the Bannon nod.
“We cherish our great nation and the unprecedented freedom and opportunity it affords, including the precious right to vote, free and fair elections, and smooth transfers of power from one administration to another,” he said.
This week, a number of Republicans, Democrats and other Jewish organizations denounced the decision to appoint Bannon, saying he represents a brand of populist nationalism that emboldens racists and should not be near the Oval Office.
Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, however, said Israel was looking forward to working with Trump’s entire team, and namechecked Bannon, after meeting with Trump on Thursday.