Members of Congress and outside progressive groups were visibly disturbed and disappointed that several members of the Congressional Black Caucus were not given the courtesy of testifying earlier in the committee proceedings on the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions -- President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general -- and instead left to testify at the end of the second day of hearings alongside outside witnesses.
"To have a senator, a House member and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of all of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus," said Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, causing applause from several members of the audience in an already palpably tense hearing room.
"I've been here almost 30 years and never seen anything like this," Rep. John Lewis told a group of reporters after the hearing.
Things got off to a rocky start earlier in the week when Politico first reported that Sen. Dianne Feinstein had requested a "members-panel" in order for three black lawmakers -- Lewis, Richmond and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker -- to testify at Sessions' confirmation hearing this week.
Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley instead scheduled a third panel for the lawmakers on the second day of testimony, with additional outside supporters of Sessions -- a strategic move that was perceived by congressional sources as a way to not only diminish testimony of the CBC members, but an unprecedented departure with Senate custom.
"Asking three members of Congress to sit and wait until the end of the hearing to testify -- likely at the same time the Senate will be holding important budget votes -- is deeply unfair," Feinstein said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Grassley told CNN that Feinstein's request came late, after the hearing had already been set, and "it would have been disrespectful to make the other witnesses wait who were already slated to testify on the citizen panel," and so he tried to "accommodate all witnesses in the fairest way."
A spokesperson for Sessions declined to comment.
But Senate Democrats went out of their way to highlight the issue Wednesday at the culmination of two days of hearings where the treatment of African-Americans in the justice system loomed large.
"I regret that the chairman has decided to break committee tradition and make these members of Congress wait until the end of the hearing to speak. That is not how other chairmen have treated fellow members of Congress," said former chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy in his opening remarks.
Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also spoke out on the controversy on Senate floor Wednesday.
"I regret that a sitting US senator had to fight to earn the right to speak at the Judiciary hearing ... and I regret the manner in which he was treated," Schumer said.
Whether insult, oversight or otherwise -- the timing of the witnesses' testimony did not distract from the content of their statements, as TV cable outlets carried the testimony live Wednesday afternoon.
Booker said after his testimony he was not bothered by Grassley's scheduling choice, nor any criticism he has received from colleagues for testifying against a fellow senator.
"Yeah, I've been criticized," Booker said. "(B)ut if you're not being criticized in America, you're probably not doing a lot of good things."
|(Photo: Cliff Owen, AP)|
Black Lawmakers: America ‘Cannot Count’ On Jeff Sessions
In a history-making testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said Wednesday that the American people “cannot count” on fellow senator Jeff Sessions to bring justice to the justice system if confirmed as attorney general.
Booker sat alongside civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) as he delivered his remarks. All three lawmakers were scheduled to go at the end of Sessions’ confirmation hearing. All three eviscerated Sessions’ record, one by one.
“I know that some of my colleagues are unhappy that I’m breaking with Senate tradition to testify against the nomination of one of my colleagues,” Booker said. “But I believe, like perhaps all of my colleagues, that in the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country.”
Booker pointed out that he and Sessions, an Alabama Republican, have always respected one another, citing legislation they co-sponsored. The praise stopped there.
“Sen. Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requirement of the job ― to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all,” Booker said. “In fact, at numerous times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions.”
Would Sessions pursue justice for women if confirmed to head the Justice Department? “His record indicates that he won’t,” Booker said, adding that the same goes for immigrants, voting rights and equal rights of LGBT Americans.
Booker, a leading criminal justice reform advocate, also pointed out that Sessions opposes reform in that area, and has helped stall bipartisan legislation in the Senate.
“His record indicates that we cannot count on him to support state and national efforts toward bringing justice to a justice system that people on both sides of the aisle readily admit is biased against the poor, drug addicted, mentally ill, and people of color,” Booker said.
Willie Huntley, a former assistant U.S. attorney, testified in support of Sessions. Huntley said that the Sessions he knows would enforce and follow the laws of the U.S. “evenhandedly” and “equally.”
But then came Lewis, who described segregation and racial injustices in his childhood home of Alabama with a booming voice that shook when he recalled the “chokehold of discrimination and racial hate” that surrounded him as he grew up in the South.
“Any black person who did not cross the street when a white person was walking down the same sidewalk, who did not move to the back of the bus, who drank from a white water fountain, who looked a white person directly in the eyes could be arrested and taken to jail,” he said.
The U.S. is different now, Lewis said. The country had made progress, but he warned that “there are forces that want to take us back.”
“It doesn’t matter how Sen. Sessions may smile,” he said. “How friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who is gonna stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help.”
Richmond let Republicans on the Judiciary Committee know what he thought about their strategy to have lawmakers testify at the very end of a two-day confirmation hearing.
“[It] is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus,” he said. “It is a petty strategy. The message sent by this process is duly noted.”
Sessions struggled on day one of his confirmation hearing to reason past statements, and his record. In 1986, Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because he was deemed too racist. Allegations at the time said that he called a black attorney “boy,” and once suggested a white lawyer was a race traitor for working for black clients.
“I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that were — that I was accused of. I did not,” Sessions said.
Richmond put senators on notice Wednesday, telling them that if they voted to confirm Sessions they would be “permanently marked” as a co-conspirator in an effort to move the country in reverse.
“You all must face a choice: Be courageous or be complicit,” Richmond said. “He has no track record of fighting for justice for minorities. If he were in fact a champion for civil rights, wouldn’t the civil rights community support his nomination instead of speaking with one voice in near unanimous opposition?”
Black lawmakers say Sessions unfit to be attorney general
Black lawmakers said Wednesday that Sen. Jeff Sessions at times has shown hostility toward civil rights, making him unfit to be attorney general, as a 1986 letter from the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. surfaced strongly expressing opposition to the Alabama senator.
In the second day of confirmation hearings, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Sessions' colleague, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was beaten when he marched for civil rights in the 1960s, warned that Sessions could move the country backward if confirmed as Donald Trump's top law enforcement official.
Booker said the "arc of the universe does not just naturally curve toward justice, we must bend it," and the country needs an attorney general who is determined to bend it.
"Senator Sessions' record does not speak to that desire, intention or will," Booker said, noting his opposition to overhauling the criminal justice system and his positions on other issues affecting minority groups.
Lewis told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the country needs "someone who's going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help, the people who have been discriminated against."
And Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, urged senators to reject Sessions' eventual nomination because he has "advanced an agenda that will do great harm" to African-Americans.
The lawmakers' criticism echoed Cornell Brooks, the head of the NAACP, who told the panel earlier in the day that the organization "firmly believes" Sessions is unfit to serve.
The Alabama Republican was rejected by the Judiciary panel in 1986 for a federal judgeship amid accusations that he had called a black attorney "boy" — which he denied — and the NAACP and ACLU "un-American."
Sessions on Tuesday called those accusations "damnably false" and said he is "totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen."
The lawmakers' testimony brought two days of confirmation hearings for Sessions to a close. He has solid support from the Senate's Republican majority and from some Democrats in conservative-leaning states, and is expected to easily win confirmation. But Democrats are using the hearings to try to show that Sessions — and Trump's administration — won't be committed to civil rights, a chief priority of the Justice Department during the Obama administration.
On Tuesday, the NAACP released a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, widow of the civil rights leader, in which she said that Sessions' actions as a federal prosecutor were "reprehensible" and that he used his office "in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters."
"Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge," Mrs. King wrote. Mrs. King died in 2006.
Richmond complained during his testimony that putting the all-black panel at the end of the hearings was akin to being made to go to the "back of the bus," a reference to 1960s segregation laws. During his testimony, many members of the Congressional Black Caucus sat in the audience.
Not everyone on the panel criticized Sessions. Three men who had worked with Sessions in Alabama and Washington, all black, testified in support.
Jesse Seroyer, a former U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Alabama, said Sessions is a "good honest person who is going to give all he has to make sure everyone is treated fairly under the law."
Earlier in the day, Attorney General Michael Mukasey also came to Sessions' defense at the hearing. He wrote in his testimony that "of all the insidious practices that have crept into our politics in recent times, I know of none more insidious than casual and unjustified accusations of racism, smears that once leveled are difficult to wipe clean."