Cory Booker testifies against attorney general pick Jeff Sessions

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) (L), is flanked by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), as he reads a statement speaking out against Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions (R-AL), during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, January 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. 

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

In a highly unusual move for a Senate colleague, Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, delivered a blistering criticism Wednesday of Jeff Sessions, the junior U.S. senator from Alabama who Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Justice Department.

Booker testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the second day of Sessions’ confirmation hearing, citing the Alabama Republican’s opposition to reforming the criminal justice system as one reason he is unfit to be attorney general. 

“I know that some of my colleagues are unhappy that I’m breaking with Senate tradition to testify against the nomination of one of my colleagues,” Booker said at the hearing. “But I believe, like perhaps all of my colleagues, that in the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country.” 

He added that Sessions “has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requirement of the job – to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all.” 

“In fact, at numerous times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions, and has worked to frustrate attempts to advance these ideals,” Booker said. 

Following Booker’s appeal against Sessions, Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, also addressed the committee Wednesday, slamming the nominee’s stance on strengthening law and order.

Some, he said, “wonder whether Sessions’ call for law and order means what it did in Alabama when I was growing up.” The Georgia congressman, a civil rights icon, was harkening back to his days living under Jim Crow segregation. 

Lewis added: “The rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.

The head of one of the largest African-American civil rights organization told Congress on Wednesday that Sessions is “unfit to serve” as attorney general, as a 1986 letter from the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. surfaced strongly expressing opposition to the Alabama senator.

Cornell Brooks, the head of the NAACP, said the organization “firmly believes” that Sessions is unfit to serve as attorney general in the incoming Trump administration. 

The Alabama Republican was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 for a federal judgeship amid accusations that he had called a black attorney “boy” - which he denied - and the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.”

“We take no pleasure in stating that, in the view of the NAACP, Sen. Sessions’ record conclusively demonstrates that he lacks the judgment and temperament to serve effectively as attorney general of the United States,” Brooks said in his testimony, saying the senator “evinces a clear disregard, disrespect and even disdain for the civil and human rights of racial and ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and others who suffer from discrimination in this country.”

Sessions on Tuesday called those accusations “damnably false” and said he is “totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen.”

On Tuesday, the NAACP released a letter from Coretta Scott King, wife of the civil rights leader, in which she said that Sessions’ actions as a federal prosecutor were “reprehensible” and that he used his office “in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”

“Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge,” Mrs. King wrote. Mrs. King died in 2006.

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey came to Sessions’ defense at the hearing. He wrote in his testimony that “of all the insidious practices that have crept into our politics in recent times, I know of none more insidious than casual and unjustified accusations of racism, smears that once leveled are difficult to wipe clean.”

Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general who is black and has known Sessions for three decades, testified that he has “no doubt that he will enforce the law in favor of all Americans’ civil rights, regardless of their positions or perspectives.”

Sessions has solid support from the Senate’s Republican majority and from some Democrats in conservative-leaning states, and is expected to easily win confirmation. But Democrats are using the hearings to try to show that Sessions - and President-elect Donald Trump’s administration - won’t be committed to civil rights, a chief priority of the Justice Department during the Obama administration.