By Gabriel Tynes, Jane Nicholes and Jason Johnson
It’s an attorney’s club more exclusive than serving on the United States Supreme Court. While the post may be less consequential, 112 lawyers have been confirmed Supreme Court justices, yet only 83 have ever held the position of U.S. Attorney General.
Former U.S. Senator Hugo Black was the first Alabamian appointed to the Supreme Court, in 1937 after the Senate confirmed his nomination by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now, 80 years later, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions is likely to be the first Alabamian to lead the Justice Department. Nominated by President-elect Donald Trump after his surprise victory in November, Sessions’ Senate confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin Jan. 10.
The hearings are familiar territory for Sessions, a University of Alabama School of Law graduate who entered politics as Alabama’s attorney general after 22 years in private practice and a long stint as U.S. attorney in Mobile.
He was in Montgomery less than two years before beating a crowded Republican primary field to succeed the retiring Howell Heflin in the U.S. Senate, where he has represented the state since 1997. But in a different time he had other ambitions.
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was born Dec. 24, 1946, in Selma to Jefferson Beauregard Sessions Jr., a general store owner, and Abbie Powe.
He obtained a bachelor’s degree in history from Huntingdon College in 1969 and his Juris Doctor from Alabama four years later, according to a non-judicial nominee questionnaire filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. After a single year of teaching at a since-closed Montgomery elementary school, Sessions entered private practice in Russellville before joining federal service as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Mobile. He also completed basic training and joined the U.S. Army Reserve.
From 1977-81, Sessions returned to private practice with attorneys Sam Stockman and Billy Bedsole, where he handled civil litigation, real estate matters and some criminal defense. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan tapped him to lead the U.S. attorney’s office in Mobile.
It was there Sessions gained the bulk of his practical legal experience, prosecuting criminal cases, defending the government and leading several high-profile public corruption cases.
One, which he has referred to as “the most significant public corruption case involving the criminal justice system in … perhaps the state of Alabama,” was the prosecution of Circuit Judge Elwood Hogan, District Judge James Sullivan and several area attorneys for “fixing” criminal court cases. Sessions served as lead counsel and, with the help of Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Figures, he convinced a jury to return guilty verdicts against each of the defendants on all counts of corruption, fraud, extortion and racketeering.
He also prosecuted former Mobile Mayor Gary Greenough, winning a conviction on 14 counts of fraud and corruption tied to Greenough’s siphoning of proceeds from the Mobile Municipal Auditorium.
But Sessions’ time as U.S. attorney is also notably marked by the case his office brought against officials in Perry County at the request of the local district attorney. In 1982, Sessions had received a complaint about potential voter fraud in Perry County. Allegedly, Albert Turner, a black write-in candidate for county commission, had received an unusually high number of absentee votes to win his campaign.
A Perry County grand jury heard evidence that Turner had written his name on several ballots and cast ballots for voters without their permission, and called for a federal investigation. In the 1984 election, Sessions received a tip that Turner was again collecting a large number of absentee ballots and would be dropping them off at the post office the night before the election.
Sessions got the FBI involved, whose agents observed Turner, his wife and a third defendant depositing 504 ballots.
Once the votes were tabulated, Sessions subpoenaed the ballots, and the FBI determined 75 of 729 had “alterations or erasures,” according to the questionnaire. By interviewing individual voters, investigators found 25 people who said their ballots were altered after they had trusted them to Turner. A grand jury later returned a 29-count indictment against the three defendants.
But with legal assistance from the NAACP, Turner was able to defend himself at trial. He explained he would often convince voters to change their vote in his presence, and that in one instance he changed the minds of a family of six. And the practice of collecting the absentee ballots was perfectly legal. A mostly African-American jury agreed, and acquitted all three defendants.
When President Reagan tapped Sessions for a federal judicial seat in 1986, the case came back to haunt him. During a grueling Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the case was presented alongside allegations of racism to portray Sessions as an opponent of civil rights. Figures, his former right-hand man, led the charge, testifying that Sessions had spoken favorably of the KKK until he learned they smoked marijuana, and had also once offensively called him “boy.”
Another former federal attorney testified that Sessions called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.” He also said Sessions once called a white attorney a “disgrace to his race.” Sessions denied or defended his previous remarks, but the damage was done. The Senate committee failed to recommend his nomination to the floor, and he became just one of two judicial nominees in the 20th century to not receive confirmation.
Figures died in January 2015, but attorney Lani Guinier, who defended the Perry County case and is currently a professor of law at Harvard Law School, recalled Sessions’ investigation as equally if not more heavy handed on minorities than his prosecution of the defendants.
“Federal agents began to harass voters — making repeated visits to shacks on dirt roads, asking how each voter voted, asking if they had assistance … asking if they could read or write, and why they voted for who they voted for,” Guinier recalled last week, reading passages from her book “Lift Every Voice.”
Guinier, who always refers to Sessions by his full name, says “it was frightening” for the voters. Further, she noted all of the defendants faced a total of 180 years in prison if they were convicted on all charges.
“After the case was finished being litigated, the jury went back and basically agreed with the defendants that this was an inappropriate prosecution,” she said. “All of the jurors, all of them were criticizing what Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was saying.”
On his nomination as attorney general, Guinier said, “I would certainly not support him under any circumstances — there was nothing he did that was promising … I don’t want to be quoted on how terrible he is personally, but I certainly don’t feel like he was a very good lawyer.”
But back in Alabama, Sessions’ reputation after the failed federal court nomination was still sound. He returned to work in the U.S. attorney’s office until 1995, leading such cases as reinforcing the federally ordered desegregation of Mobile County public schools and prosecuting KKK members who lynched Michael Donald at random in 1981, a case that effectively bankrupt the Klan in Alabama.
In 1990, he included Figures, his former assistant, into an indictment involving the crack cocaine trafficking conspiracy that targeted Noble Beasley and others. Figures was never charged, and Sessions denied the investigation was politically motivated.
He threw his hat into the political arena in 1995, running an unlikely campaign for attorney general against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Evans. He won with 57 percent of the vote.
Armand DeKeyser, who met Sessions in the late 1970s and served with him in the Army Reserve and at the U.S. attorney’s office, joined Sessions’ staff in Montgomery as chief administrative officer. He recalls Sessions as taking control of a bloated government beauracracy and leaving the office in better shape than when he entered it.
“When we came on board, the previous AG, Jimmy Evans, had hired a lot of employees on a contract basis. He was counting on those salaries being covered by settlements,” DeKeyser said. “From memory, we went from 206 [employees] down to 122 — about 75 people were let go when we decided to live within our means. We worked with the Legislature and and the governor’s office and there was sufficient funding. I personally had several attorneys tell me how they appreciated how we reduced the staff and got more work done. The previous AG was far more political and not as concerned with budget issues and doing things the right way.”
But Sessions was also criticized for not pursuing an investigation into a wave of church burnings across the state. As attorney general, he entered a “friend of the court” brief supporting states rights after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Colorado law that negatively affected the LGBT community. In 1996 he unsuccessfully intervened to stop to stop a gay and lesbian conference from being hosted at the University of Alabama. And he also called for high school athletes to submit to regular drug tests to root out steroid use.
Just months into Sessions’ first term as attorney general, Sen. Howell Heflin announced he would not seek re-election, and the race was on for his replacement. A large list of Republican candidates emerged, and Sessions was one of the last to announce his candidacy.
Another hopeful was Republican Frank McRight, who recalls a tossup race before Sessions entered it.
“Jeff was probably the best known of the group, he had been recently elected as AG … and gained a lot of very favorable publicity as a result,” he said. “It was always more of a question of whether he would decide to run for the Senate than if he ran, he would be elected.”
Sessions won the Republican runoff against Sid McDonald and defeated Democrat Roger Bedford in the general election with 53 percent of the vote. McRight said for the past 20 years Sessions has built a respectable record.
“He’s an honest person, hardworking, he’s raised a good family; I couldn’t think of anything negative to say about him at all,” McRight said. “We share the view that government works best when it’s close to the people, it works best when people have access to it and in Washington, it’s not close. It’s inaccessible to the average voter. I think Jeff has a bum rap even today with claims of racially insensitive comments, but I think he has been a solid representative.”
Claire Austin, a lobbyist and political consultant who also worked for Sessions in the AG’s office and as his deputy campaign manager for his initial Senate race, concurred.
“Jeff is a very principled man who always followed the rules of law on everything we did,” she said. “He’s very conservative and very much down to earth. He’s an Eagle Scout and he’s very much like the Boy Scout — always a very honest and truthful man and a pleasure to work with. Not only has he done a great job representing the state of Alabama, people all across the country know who Jeff is because of his stance and record in the Senate and I think it’s very exciting he’s going to be the next AG.”
U.S. Senate, 1997-present
If you go to Jeff Sessions’ Senate web page, the first thing you see is a rotation of recent statements and positions taken between Sept. 20 and Oct. 19. Three of the five are about immigration and refugee resettlement, one is a statement on the passing of former Alabama Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley and the last is headlined, “Obama administration subordinates concerns of the American people to advance agenda of the United Nations.”
Immigration and the Obama administration’s handling of it is perhaps Sessions’ hottest hot-button issue and one on which he is expected to have a significant impact if confirmed as President-elect Trump’s attorney general. He is highly critical of the number of illegal aliens in the U.S. and the number with criminal records.
Sessions’ own immigration plan, dated January 2015, starts out this way: “‘Immigration reform’ may be the single most abused phrase in the English language. It has become a legislative honorific almost exclusively reserved for proposals which benefit everyone but actual American citizens.”
Look for much of the questioning during his confirmation hearing to be about how he’ll deal with illegal immigration as attorney general.
Sessions is widely considered one of the most conservative of the conservatives in Congress. Now in his fourth term, his vote can be counted on to cut spending and taxes, support military defense initiatives and support business and the domestic oil and gas industry.
His ratings from special interest groups fall along conservative lines: multiple 100s from pro-life groups and zeroes from pro-choice groups, zeroes or low marks from animal protection groups and mostly, but not always, high ratings from business and builder interests.
Sessions’ power in Congress comes from his seniority and rank on dominant Senate committees. He is a senior member of the Judiciary and Budget committees, and sits on the Armed Services and the Environment and Public Works committees. Subcommittee chairmanships include Immigration and the National Interest, and Strategic Forces.
In 2005, Sessions sponsored and pushed through the Honoring Every Requirement of Exemplary Services (HEROES) Act, with then-U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, as chief co-sponsor. The act substantially improved death benefits for members of the military and their families.
In the 114th Congress, Sessions was the original sponsor of six bills. Only one passed, and wasn’t his version, but a House resolution that became law. It was civil rights related, awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to the Foot Soldiers who participated in Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday or the final Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March in 1965.
“In terms of legislation it’s very little,” said Sam Fisher, associate professor of political science at the University of South Alabama. “He’s not very active at writing legislation, or even co-sponsoring legislation, compared to most of the senators.”
Unlike Sen. Richard Shelby, who is known for bringing home the bacon in terms of money and projects for Alabama, Sessions has concerned himself more with issues of national security and the judiciary, Fisher said. Sessions favors minimal government, often opposes government spending and is highly partisan, he said.
“There’s no room for cooperation. He had a reputation for being an obstructionist.”
Although Sessions generally sticks to the party line, he has shown moments of bipartisanship. He voted to confirm U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, saying Holder brought more experience to the post than predecessors Albert Gonzales and Janet Reno.
Sessions and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who opposed Sessions’ judicial nomination in 1986, worked together to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. The act created a commission to study prison rape and make recommendations on how to reduce it.
“[Kennedy’s] a liberal and I’m a conservative, but we both agree that punishment for a criminal defendant should be set by a judge and should not include sexual assault,” Sessions said at the time.
And while Sessions the prosecutor was considered a tough soldier in the War on Drugs, Sessions the senator was instrumental in enacting reforms in sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. At the time, cases involving smaller amounts of crack could result in much harsher sentences under federal guidelines than did larger amounts of powder cocaine.
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One of the most well-reported examples of unequal sentencing was the case of Stephanie Nodd of Mobile, who at age 23 was sentenced to 30 years in prison as a part of the Noble Beasley crack cocaine conspiracy. Nodd was a first-time offender who served 21 years before being released. At the time of her conviction, Sessions was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.
Though there’s been no shortage of civil rights groups urging the Senate to block Sessions’ appointment as attorney general, the NAACP turned up the heat of its rhetoric with joint press conferences held simultaneously in five of Alabama’s largest cities Jan. 3.
In Mobile, Montgomery, Huntsville, Birmingham and Dothan, speakers gathered to discuss a number of concerns the NAACP has with Sessions’ past voting record as well as now-notorious comments some deemed “too racist” that cost the Alabama native a federal judgeship in 1986.
In Mobile, NAACP leaders on the state and national levels highlighted those concerns, and also addressed comments Sessions has made about their own organization — calling it as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center “un-American” and “Communist inspired.”
However, in his remarks NAACP President and CEO Dr. Cornell William Brooks stayed primarily focused on voting rights, bringing up Alabama’s voter ID requirement and the Shelby County lawsuit that caused a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be struck down.
Brooks said by his support and praise of those decisions, Sessions had “struck mute” when confronted with “voter suppression in his own state.”
“Sen. Sessions has been an unreliable supporter of the Voting Rights Act, at best, and more often and most likely a hostile enemy of the right to vote,” Brooks said. “He’s not qualified to enforce the Voting Rights Act if he can’t acknowledge the very voter suppression that makes the Voting Rights Act necessary.”
Brooks also referenced Sessions’ hometown of Selma, suggesting that Sessions’ appointment would be a contradiction of the city’s significance in the quest for African-American voting rights and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Brooks described America as being in a “perilous moment,” citing statistics on civilians killed by law enforcement officers as well as the country’s growing number of incarcerated. In contrast, Sessions has echoed Trump’s calls for “law and order” when speaking on the unrest and protests seen around the country in response to officer-involved shootings and use of force.
In that respect, Brooks said Sessions could likely undo the progress toward police reform that’s been made under outgoing President Barack Obama’s two appointments for attorney general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.
“Our children are insisting with their minds, their hearts and their bodies that black lives matter because they understand that ‘black lives matter’ is the moral predicate to the ethical conclusion that all lives matter. Unless the first is true the second can never be,” Brooks said. “Now we have a president-elect who wants to lift someone to the highest law enforcement office in the land who does not recognize that black lives indeed matter.”
As was the case at all of five press conferences Tuesday, Brooks urged the Senate to block Sessions’ appointment as attorney general. He also asked Trump to rescind the nomination and Sessions himself to withdraw his own name from consideration.
“Alabamians gave their lives for the right to vote. We will vote and fight for that right, and that means we will oppose Sen. Jeff Sessions with everything within us until the last possible moment,” Brooks added. “We are qualified for this fight because of the sacrifices we’ve made. He is unqualified for the office he seeks because of the sacrifices he has not made on behalf of those who gave so much.”
Meanwhile, from his humble beginnings in Selma, Sessions has since amassed personal wealth. According to financial disclosures, Sessions owns a total of 1,612 acres in Monroe, Wilcox and Choctaw counties. A few parcels are profitable, according to records from 2014 and 2015.
In 2015, Sessions brought in $55,981 on 479 acres he owns in Wilcox County, $450,000 through timber sales and leasing royalties on 613 acres he owns in Choctaw County and $26,173 on another eight acres he owns in Choctaw County. Additionally, the financial disclosures indicate he owns hundreds of assets in stocks, mutual funds and other securities. Further, he pays a mortgage on both a local residence and a Washington, D.C., residence.
Asked how Sessions may lead in the role of attorney general, Fisher said, “In the Justice Department, like any agency, you have limited resources and you have to decide where you’re going to put those resources. I expect there to be a shift in terms of emphasis in terms of what they want to prosecute, compared to what the previous administration did.”
Fisher said he expects to see more emphasis placed on crime, illegal immigration and those issues of national security that involve the Justice Department. “In terms of civil rights, I expect those things to get dialed back — voting rights, things of that nature.”
Sessions is likely to pursue more active prosecution of illegal immigration cases and to press other government agencies to tighten up as well, Fisher said. He said it would be interesting to see if the Justice Department under Sessions more actively prosecutes businesses that employ illegal immigrants.
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.