Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was censured on the floor of the Senate Tuesday night for criticizing Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), nominated to serve as President Donald Trump’s attorney general.
Only Warren wasn’t criticizing Sessions in her own words. She was quoting the wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1986, when Sessions was being considered for a federal judgeship, Coretta Scott King wrote to the Senate to urge them to reject his nomination. And she did not mince words.
In a letter obtained by the Washington Post earlier this year, King took on Sessions’s record as a federal prosecutor, particularly the faulty charges he pursued to go after a local civil rights activist who signed up black voters.
“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts,” King wrote. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
“The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods,” she later added. “I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.”
In the 1980s, Sessions prosecuted Albert Turner for alleged voter fraud after Turner helped black voters register in Alabama — earning the nickname “Mr. Voter Registration.” The charges fell flat, with a jury deliberating for less than three hours before finding Turner not guilty on all counts of mail fraud, altering absentee ballots, and conspiracy to vote more than once. This moment is very telling: These kinds of court challenges would be tried time and time again by conservative lawmakers and prosecutors, even in 2016, to stop black voter registration efforts.
King referenced this history in her letter in particular, arguing, “Free exercise of voting rights is so fundamental to American democracy that we can not tolerate any form of infringement of those rights.”
But Sessions has long been an opponent of voting rights protections. He previously said that the Voting Rights Act, which allowed the federal government to oversee elections in states with histories of racism, is a “piece of intrusive legislation.” And when the US Supreme Court struck down parts of the law, Sessions argued that Shelby County, Alabama, where the Supreme Court challenge came from, “has never had a history of denying voters and certainly not now” — even though the county, like Alabama generally, has a long, long history of discrimination of all kinds.
Sessions’s 1986 nomination was ultimately shut down not just by this record, but also due to accusations of racist comments. In Senate hearings, several witnesses said that Sessions had repeatedly made racist remarks, including a comment that the Ku Klux Klan “was okay until I found out they smoked pot.” (Sessions has now denied some of the comments, while claiming that some of the other remarks were meant to be jokes and were taken out of context.)
Those comments came up during the hearings for Sessions’s nomination for attorney general. But when taken to the Senate floor, they apparently went too far for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Read the full letter: