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Obama court pick puts spotlight on Sessions

Sen. Jeff Sessions has made a career of speaking out and voting against anyone he considers an activist liberal judge. Sonia Sotomayor was no exception the last time they crossed paths.
Sessions Sotomayor
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., left, confers with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on Capitol Hill in Washington this month. Sessions, a hard line conservative, once was rejected by the Senate for his own judgeship after a bitter confirmation fight.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. Jeff Sessions has made a career of speaking out and voting against anyone he considers an activist liberal judge. Sonia Sotomayor was no exception the last time they crossed paths.

In 1997, she was nominated to the federal appeals court. Sessions, R-Ala., was a backbench senator demanding to know whether she had refused to join in a standing ovation for conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She said she had.

Sessions voted against her anyway.

More than a decade later, the stakes are considerably higher. Sotomayor is President Barack Obama's choice to become the first Hispanic justice. Sessions has his party's lead role at her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Confounding liberals and conservatives?
No one expects Sessions to alter his views of who should and shouldn't sit on the Supreme Court. But his own experience more than two decades ago as a judicial nominee denied a federal court seat by the Senate could confound conservatives expecting a bare-knuckled attack, as well as liberals hoping he'll come off as a bullying, out-of-touch Southerner.

"Some people are quick to caricature different members, whether it's the right caricaturing someone like Sen. (Edward) Kennedy or the left caricaturing someone like Sen. Sessions," said Michael O'Neill, a George Mason University law professor who was the committee's top GOP staffer when Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter was the senior Republican. "I don't think you'll see Sessions personalize this ... and in some respects it might be less heated."

Sessions, the son of a country store owner in rural Alabama, is stepping into his new role at a moment of weakness for his party. The circumstances, he acknowledges, require him to work more cooperatively with majority Democrats.

He knows he must balance pressure from the right to scrutinize Sotomayor against the risks of portraying Republicans as obstructionists, particularly with the first Hispanic nominee to the high court.

Sympathy for those in hot seat
But Sessions also has a unique personal sympathy for judges in the confirmation hot seat. It was 23 years ago when the same committee blocked his appointment over allegations that cast him as a racist. He says he feels an overriding "internal pressure" to handle nominations fairly.

No one would have guessed that Sessions would be in this position in 1986, when the committee killed his nomination by President Ronald Reagan to be a federal district court judge.

Sessions, then 39, denied charges he made racist comments and targeted black civil rights leaders as a federal prosecutor in Alabama. He did acknowledge making some off-color "jokes," such as calling civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People "un-American."

Kennedy, D-Mass., back then said Sessions was a "throwback to a shameful era." Two Republicans, including Specter, joined Democrats led by then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., to defeat the nomination.

Sessions revived his career in Alabama, was elected the state's attorney general in 1994 and won his Senate seat two years later. He is known mostly as a conservative crusader, opposing legislation to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship when former President George W. Bush proposed it two years ago, and backing causes such as displaying the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

At home in Alabama, his rise on the Judiciary Committee could push him out of the long shadow of the state's senior senator, Democratic-turned-Republican Richard Shelby, who has buildings named for him across the state.

Nationally, the move puts Sessions under intense pressure to carry the conservative banner, and squarely in the cross-hairs of liberals hoping to paint him as a far-right extremist with a penchant for provocative statements.

In remarks that may have gone unnoticed before, for example, Sessions was criticized this month for suggesting that Guantanamo Bay prisoners were lucky to be held at such a "beautiful" site with "tropic breezes."

Rehashing the allegations that doomed his judgeship, some commentators have begun referring to him by his full name: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a family name incorporating Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, and General P.G.T. Beauregard, who fired on South Carolina's Fort Sumter in 1861 to open the Civil War.

‘Awesome responsibility’
Sessions insists he doesn't pay attention to the criticism and has moved past his failed judicial nomination. He has long since become friends with his former Senate detractors, and he smiles when asked about his rise to the top of the committee that turned him away.

"It is ironic," he said of succeeding Specter in the GOP post after Specter left the GOP to become a Democrat last month.

"I was a prosecutor for 17 years and I used to be frustrated by the judicial decisions that I thought didn't make sense," he added. "Now I'm in a position to get good judges ... and to me that's really an awesome responsibility."

Sessions has so far taken a conciliatory approach, playing down chances that Republicans would try to filibuster Sotomayor's nomination and saying he could support a judge who is gay or who backs abortion rights.

At a hearing this month for one of President Barack Obama's lower court nominees, Sessions said he may have been wrong on a few of President Bill Clinton's appointments, and he has left open the possibility that he could even support Sotomayor.

But he says she first must explain "serious problems," such as comments she made at a law seminar that federal appellate courts "make policy." He also is insisting that Republicans have plenty of time to examine her record.

"It's my view that we can do better with nominations than we have in the past," he said.