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Ian Millhiser Headshot

Sessions Uses Sotomayor as a Pawn in His Lifelong Crusade Against Civil Rights

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In 1986, an ambitious young United States Attorney named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was denied a seat on the federal bench because of his own deep-seated hostility to the very notion of civil rights. As a federal prosecutor, Sessions conducted a tenuous criminal investigation into voting rights advocates that registered African-Americans to vote -- an investigation that culminated in an unsuccessful prosecution against a former aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He once quipped that he "used to think [the KKK] were OK" until he found out some of them were "pot smokers;" and he routinely referred to an African-American attorney who worked for him as "boy" -- even once warning that attorney to "be careful what you say to white folks" after Sessions overheard him chastising a white secretary.

Moreover, Sessions remains unrepentant for these incidents, although he did reluctantly concede at his confirmation hearing that it "probably was wrong" when he attacked the NAACP as an "un-American" and "Communist-inspired" organizations that "forced civil rights down the throats of people." Watch:

Twenty-three years later, Sessions is the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee; and he is the architect of a right-wing campaign which claims that Sotomayor's past service on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) makes her unsuitable for the bench. Last week, Sessions claimed that this mainstream civil rights organization took "extreme" positions in litigation. This week, Sessions clarified this remark in an interview with Fox News, explaining that he is concerned that PRLDEF "brought several race discrimination lawsuits for minorities."

Sessions' assault on Sotomayor and PRLDEF has largely been met with skepticism -- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, commented that "[o]nly in Washington could someone's many years of volunteer service to a highly regarded nonprofit organization that has done so much good for so many be twisted into a negative" -- and its puzzling that conservatives permitted Sessions to be the public face of their opposition to the first Latina nominated to the Supreme Court. Sessions' anti-PRLDEF campaign is not only baseless; it is reminiscent of his decades-old comments about the NAACP that kept him off the federal bench years ago.

Indeed, given Sessions' long history of baseless assaults on civil rights and civil rights organizations, one has to wonder whether conservatives chose him as their leading voice on Sotomayor because they fundamentally agree with his lifelong stance on race. Once thing is clear, however, America has changed a lot since 1986, but Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III remains exactly the same.