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Sen. Jeff Sessions defends his civil rights record, promises to prioritize law over his personal views

Del Quentin Wilber, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jeff Sessions forcefully defended his civil rights record Tuesday and pledged, if confirmed as the nation's next attorney general, to put aside his personal views and uphold laws protecting abortion and same-sex marriage.

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee as President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Justice Department, Sessions also vowed to recuse himself from decisions involving former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's handling of classified material.

The daylong confirmation hearing was a mostly collegial affair with fellow senators politely prodding the 70-year-old former federal prosecutor to explain his record on issues ranging from torture to immigration.

As a longtime member of the committee now reviewing his expected nomination to become the nation's top law enforcement officer, Sessions has sat on the opposite side of the witness table for five previous confirmation hearings for attorney general candidates.

So it's no surprise that the seasoned Alabama lawmaker avoided any self-inflicted wounds during his testimony, keeping his composure amid questioning and periodic disruptions from protesters in the audience.

When pressed on his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, for example, the conservative senator told Democratic colleagues that both issues had been settled by the Supreme Court and that he would abide by those decisions. Similarly, on the use of waterboarding against terrorism suspects, which Sessions has previously supported, he said Congress had clearly outlawed the practice.

Session began his testimony by offering his most strident defense yet of allegations that as a U.S. attorney in the 1980s he had improperly targeted civil rights advocates for prosecution on voter fraud charges and had made racially insensitive comments about the Ku Klux Klan and minorities.

"These are damnably false charges," Sessions said, adding that he "did not harbor the race-based animosities I am accused of. I did not."

Those accusations, made by fellow Justice Department attorneys at the time, helped torpedo Sessions' 1986 nomination by President Ronald Reagan to become a federal judge.

"There was an organized effort to caricature me as something that wasn't true," he said. "It was very painful. I didn't know how to respond and didn't respond very well. I hope my tenure in this body has shown you that the caricature that was created of me was not accurate. It wasn't accurate then and it's not accurate now."

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