Justice requires higher standard than Sessions
© Greg Nash

One of the major duties and responsibilities of the U.S. Senate is the constitutional requirement that they provide "advice and consent" on presidential nominations for high appointive office.

Of utmost importance is the Cabinet position of attorney general. Recently, I sat through the daylong session for Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsJeff Sessions returns to Justice Department to retrieve Cabinet chair Rosenstein still working at DOJ despite plans to leave in mid-March Juan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump MORE, President-elect Trump's nominee for the Department of Justice.

Before I get into those proceedings, I want to express my appreciation for the subject matter and the process itself. The beauty of confirmation is the clarity. All 100 senators are given a simple choice: They must vote yes or no. That is it. No amendments.

How and why they vote the way they do has always intrigued me. Maybe it has to do with the first Washington movie I saw, "Advise & Consent." The screenplay was adapted from the bestselling work by that master of Washington yarns, Allen Drury.

The appointment of Sessions was, to say the least, a highly controversial one. The position of attorney general is an office unlike any other. The attorney general has a singular degree of independence and autonomy. Although he gives legal advice to the president and is the chief law enforcement officer of the country, he is supposed to be free of political influence in his decisions.

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That means the president cannot and must not direct him on sensitive matters that have a political component. The background and personal history of someone who is chosen for this office is extremely important.

 

Sessions himself is uniquely familiar with the confirmation process. He has been a senator for 20 years and has actually been a member of the Judiciary Committee, which is charged with providing advice and consent for the job.

Even more significant, he appeared before the same committee when he was nominated for a federal district judgeship in 1986. The committee voted down his nomination at that time. Sessions was not approved because the Democratic majority believed he was unqualified based on a history of views and actions that demonstrated racial discrimination and animus toward African-Americans.

Now, Trump has appointed someone to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 who many believe did not have a sufficient personal commitment to either one of those laws.

It struck me as particularly ironic that the hearing itself was taking place in the Russell Senate Office Building. As you walk into that majestic building — which used to be called the Old Senate Office Building — there stands a statue in white marble of Richard B. Russell. Under his formal, stern glare there is a plaque which reads, "Richard B. Russell, Senator from Georgia, 1933-1971."

What is not written on the plaque was that Russell was the leader of a group of senators from the South who vigorously and bitterly fought for decades any legislation that advanced the rights of African-Americans. They even authored a working document of their views, the "Southern Manifesto."

The modern-day committee is chaired by Republican Sen. Charles GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care: Senators seek CBO input on preventing surprise medical bills | Oversight panel seeks OxyContin documents | Pharmacy middlemen to testify on prices | Watchdog warns air ambulances can put patients at 'financial risk' Drug prices are a matter of life and death Senate panel to hear from pharmacy middlemen on drug prices MORE of Iowa. The ranking Democrat on the committee is Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP lawmaker offers constitutional amendment capping Supreme Court seats at 9 Overnight Energy: Judge halts drilling on Wyoming public lands over climate change | Dems demand details on Interior's offshore drilling plans | Trump mocks wind power Dem senators demand offshore drilling info before Bernhardt confirmation hearing MORE of California. Neither Grassley or Feinstein are lawyers. Even though the committee is the Judiciary Committee, the presence of non-lawyers is a refreshing concept.

In his opening statement, Sessions attempted to appeal to the Democrats on the Committee by pronouncing "You know who I am." He went on to claim that he "believes in fairness" and "equal justice under law," that he would "tell the president if he overreaches." He went on to say that he believes in "access to the ballot."

He faced the 1986 hearing "straight on." He stated that the charges against him were "damnably false." He closed by pointing out that he prosecuted a "murdering Klansman" and that that person was executed.

Under questioning, Sessions asserted the independence and integrity of the office by saying that the person who holds this office would have to "stand up and say 'no'" to the president. And when Grassley rightly asked him what would he do if the president asked him to do something against the law, Sessions properly said he'd "have to resign."

In probably the most dramatic confession, Sessions said he would recuse himself from any possible investigation of Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton and Ocasio-Cortez joke about Kushner's alleged use of WhatsApp Hillicon Valley: Kushner accused of using WhatsApp, personal email for official work | White House rejects request for Trump-Putin communications | Facebook left 'hundreds of millions' of passwords unsecured | Tech pressured to root out extremism Man accused of mailing pipe bombs to Dems pleads guilty MORE or the Clinton Foundation.

His best line of the day was "This country does not punish its political enemies."

There were challenging questions from Democratic senators. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen GOP moves to rein in president's emergency powers Senate votes to confirm Neomi Rao to appeals court MORE of Illinois and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharHarris's stepkids call her 'Momala' Sanders joins striking workers at UCLA in first 2020 California visit Lawmakers urge tech to root out extremism after New Zealand MORE of Minnesota probed him on the DREAM Act, specific sections of the Voting Rights Act, and his strident and absolute views on immigration. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenMan who threatened to kill Obama, Maxine Waters faces up to 20 years in prison Gillibrand defends her call for Franken to resign Gillibrand: Aide who claimed sexual harassment was 'believed' MORE of Minnesota zeroed in on the issue of voter suppression and the North Carolina case where a federal Fourth Circuit panel negated the actions of the Republican-controlled legislature.

Unbelievably, Sessions said he was "not familiar" with that landmark decision, in which the court concluded that the North Carolina legislature had with "almost surgical precision" made it so difficult for black people to vote.

That response to me was the most alarming and revealing. How could he not be aware of that decision? And why did he not immediately say that he would read it?

Beyond all those fine and noble sentiments that Sessions expressed, there was something profoundly missing. You did not sense any intensity to advancing, defending or advocating for those who are not well-off or well-heeled.

Sessions said he "loves the law," but that's not enough.

In a hallway interview, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said it best. With a vehemence and uncharacteristic vigor, he said he "did not want just another lawyer" for this job. He reminded me that he, like Sessions, had been a U.S. attorney and an elected state attorney general. He wanted an "advocate and protector for the rights of everyone."

In short, Blumenthal wants a higher standard.

Is there the possibility that 48 Democratic senators will make a statement by all voting "no"? When I asked Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the legendary civil rights activist, he replied, "I'd love it."

I doubt it will be anywhere close to that number. That's too bad.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.