Upperclassmen on the Wilcox County High School football team sometimes harassed the freshmen of 1964. But linebacker Jeff Sessions, a senior who was barely bigger than his younger schoolmates, didn’t join in.
“One of my friends was a football manager and they were picking on him. Jeff stood up and said, ‘Leave him alone,'” recalled fellow student George Alford, laughing as he remembered the 140-pound player who went on to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate and is now President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general.
“It’s not like he had any physical presence,” Alford said, “but he stood up.”
Yet critics question whether Sessions, whose confirmation would mark a profound change from the Obama administration’s Justice Department, can universally apply that sense of fairness to the divisive policy matters that buffet the agency each day. Opponents have already signaled concern over his hard-line views on immigration and national security, and they are likely to use statements he’s made as a prosecutor and senator to cast doubt on his commitment to civil rights, an enforcement priority of the two most recent attorneys general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.
Such questions of fairness first dogged Sessions three decades ago as a young U.S. attorney up for a federal judgeship. The Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination amid accusations at his 1986 confirmation hearing that he had called a black attorney “boy” — which he denied — and the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.” His positions since then have repeatedly raised alarm among civil liberties advocates.
“When we look at Mr. Sessions’ record as a whole, there are some gaping holes and some grave questions … about his commitment to fair and even enforcement of the law,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a legal advocacy group.
Sessions has said the 1986 proceedings and allegations of racism were hurtful. His principal accuser is dead, and longtime friends from Alabama insist it’s an unfair caricature of a devoutly religious man who came of age in the segregated South.
“The man I know is an upright individual, who is honest, who is forthright,” said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who first met the senator as a fellow United Methodist Church parishioner before either held elected office.
Greg Griffin, a black Alabama judge who worked as a state attorney when Sessions was Alabama attorney general, said Sessions “always treated me with respect” and called him “one of the best bosses I ever had.”
Confirmation hearings that open Tuesday will pull back the curtain on a roughly 45-year career that saw Sessions go from Republican Party foot soldier to prosecutor to politician and ultimately one of Trump’s leading champions — and architect of some of his policies.
Democratic senators are promising a thorough vetting next week, with Patrick Leahy of Vermont — who voted against Sessions’ confirmation 30 years ago — saying “the American people deserve to learn” about his record. But he’s almost certain to get the support of his Republican peers, who hold the majority and who praise the fierce critic of President Barack Obama for his conservative credentials.
Sessions was a leading opponent of the Senate’s 2013 immigration overhaul, which he called too permissive, and has advocated broad presidential powers to curtail immigration — an issue that drew him to Trump before any of his colleagues.
He connects terrorism to lax border enforcement and has questioned whether terrorism suspects captured abroad deserve the protections of the civilian criminal justice system. He opposed efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has supported expanded government surveillance and may endorse more aggressive scrutiny of Muslims.
Sessions has alarmed civil liberties advocates with his criticism of the Voting Rights Act, which he has said placed an unfair burden on states such as Alabama. He’s raised concerns about voting fraud, which experts and current Justice Department leaders say is rare in U.S. elections. He pushed controversial cases himself as a prosecutor, including one against black civil rights activists that ended in a swift acquittal, and his emphasis on that issue could make him less inclined than the Obama administration to contest strict state voter identification laws.
He’d also inherit a Justice Department grappling with a surge in hate crimes, particularly against Muslims. But he’s suggested local authorities can adequately investigate those offenses and, in 2009, opposed expanding the federal definition of a hate crime to encompass violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity when those same protections were not afforded to the elderly or members of the military.
Sessions’ supporters, bracing for renewed scrutiny of his record, point to bipartisan legislative efforts that they say show he is not an ideologue. They note that some Democrats critical of his nomination have spoken favorably of him in the past. William Smith, who was chief counsel to Sessions in the Senate, called him a man “of the highest character.”
“Jeff Sessions has dedicated his career to upholding the rule of law, ensuring public safety and prosecuting government corruption,” spokeswoman Sarah Flores said in a statement. “Many African-American leaders who’ve known him for decades attest to this and have welcomed his nomination to be the next Attorney General.”
Though he opposed Lynch’s confirmation, Sessions voted to confirm Holder, Obama’s first attorney general and the first black man to lead the Justice Department.
He and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who had castigated him at the 1986 hearing, later sponsored a law to combat rape in prison, and he also worked with Democrats to expand Justice Department jurisdiction over military contractors who commit crimes overseas.
He also joined a bipartisan push to reduce federal sentencing disparities that treated crack cocaine offenses much more harshly than crimes related to powder cocaine. That discrepancy disproportionately affected those in minority communities where crack was the common form of the drug.
“I think we are at a point now where this 100-to-1 disparity that does fall heavier on the African-American community simply because that is where crack is most often used has got to be fixed,” Sessions said.
Still, he opposed the most recent criminal justice overhaul effort in the Senate, warning it could lead to the early release of violent offenders, and as attorney general could undo a 2013 policy known as Smart on Crime that discouraged prosecutors from seeking harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug offenders.
The tough-on-crime Republican who has said “good people don’t smoke marijuana” seems likely to be less enthusiastic about the court-enforceable improvement plans favored by Holder and Lynch for police agencies accused of racial bias.
There’s little question Session’ record on civil rights will dominate the Judiciary Committee’s attention. It’s already been heavily scrutinized by civil liberties advocates, who’ve seized on his voting record and his appearances before groups that espouse harsh views on Muslims and immigrants. NAACP protesters staged a sit-in at a Sessions office in Alabama on Monday, and more than 1,100 law professors signed a statement opposing his nomination.
Hank Sanders, a Democratic state senator who represents the area where Sessions grew up, points specifically to cases Sessions pursued against Alabama civil rights activists in the 1980s. In one, Sessions accused Albert Turner, a former adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., and two other civil rights activists of tampering with absentee ballots. The three defendants were acquitted within hours.
“They called them voter fraud cases,” said Sanders, who represented the defendants. “I called them voter persecution cases.”
Sessions’ spokeswoman noted Wednesday that Sessions has been endorsed by Turner’s son, Albert Turner Jr.
Yet it was also during Sessions’ tenure as a federal prosecutor that his office investigated and helped secure convictions in the 1981 murder of Michael Donald, a black teenager found hanging from a tree with his throat slashed. Two Ku Klux Klan members, Henry Hays and James Knowles, were arrested and convicted, Knowles in federal court, Hays in state court. Hays eventually died in Alabama’s electric chair.
Barry Kowalski, a retired Justice Department civil rights attorney in Washington, worked with Sessions during that investigation. “He couldn’t have been more helpful, more cooperative,” Kowalski said, crediting Sessions with helping secure an agreement for Knowles to testify against Hays.
Sessions’ work on the Donald case produced the most direct allegations of racism.
An assistant U.S. attorney, Thomas Figures, contended that Sessions referred to him as “boy,” among other racially charged comments. Kowalski said he worked alongside Sessions and Figures, who died in 2015, and never heard anything to corroborate Figures’ account. Flores, his spokeswoman, said many of the allegations against Sessions “have been thoroughly rebuked and discredited.”
For his part, Sessions appears girded for another round of inquiry. The questionnaire he submitted to the Judiciary Committee noted his work on the Donald case and efforts to ensure minority representation on a county school board. It devoted more space to the Turner voting fraud prosecution, suggesting he sees the case as potential ammunition for his opponents.
Alford, Sessions’ family friend from his high school days, said the scrutiny is understandable given Sessions’ biography, right down to his Southern accent and given name: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.
“That sounds like a Confederate general,” Alford said. “And any fella from Wilcox County in our generation, with that accent? Of course you’re going to get those questions.”