O'Neill on Judiciary Hearings: Sotomayor Hearings May Be Less Heated

Despite the fact that Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) voted against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's earlier nomination to the federal appeals court, his inclusion in the current confirmation hearings as his party's lead member in the Senate Judiciary Committee does not guarantee fireworks, says Professor Michael O'Neill.

O'Neill, who was the committee's top GOP staffer during Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter's tenure as senior Republican, explains, "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. I don't think you'll see Sessions personalize this...and in some respects it might be less heated."

Sessions' appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 to the federal district court was blocked by the very same committee over allegations he was a racist. Because of that experience, Sessions says he feels "internal pressure" to make sure he handles nominations fairly.

High court pick puts spotlight on Alabama senator, The Herald (Rock Hill, SC), May 31, 2009. By Ben Evans.

"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.

"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."