At the confirmation hearing for Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wasted no time bringing up reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, and his civil rights record, pointedly asking him how his antagonistic views on those issues would affect his ability or willingness to follow the law.
President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), was met almost immediately with strong questioning about his record and views on both reproductive rights and marriage equality during his confirmation hearing today.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, began her questioning by bringing up the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal Medicaid funds from being used for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the pregnant person’s life. She discussed the issue of sex trafficking of young girls, and asked Sessions if he would follow the law and allow trafficking victims who become pregnant to obtain abortions using Medicaid funds, if necessary:
FEINSTEIN: The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act signed into law in 2015 created a domestic trafficking victims fund, for victims services to be administered by the Department of Justice. Part of that fund contains up to $30 million for health care or medical items or services to trafficking victims. These funds are subject to the Hyde Amendment, which says no appropriated funding can be used to pay for abortion. However, the Hyde Amendment does not apply in cases of rape. On the senate floor, Senator Cornyn discussed the Hyde language and said, and I quote, “Everyone knows the Hyde Amendment language contains an exception for rape and health of the mother. So under this act, these limitations on spending wouldn’t have anything to do with the services available to help those victims of human trafficking.” In short, Senator Cornyn asserted that the Hyde Amendment, which contains an exception for rape, would not affect the availability of services for these victims. The domestic trafficking victims fund will be under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. Here’s the question: Will you ensure that these grant funds are not denied to service providers who will assist victims of human trafficking in obtaining comprehensive services they need, including abortion if that is what is required for a young girl impregnated during this horrific abuse?
SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, I appreciate that question, and I do appreciate the fact that our country has been talking, and I believe taking action for a number of years to deal with sex trafficking more effectively. I don’t know that we’ve reached the level of actual effectiveness we need to, but Congress and you and others have been very, very outspoken about this and there are all kinds of great citizens groups that are focused on it. So it’s a very important issue. I was not aware of how the language for this grant program has been established. I do appreciate your concerns on it. It’s a matter that I have not thought through, but ultimately, it’s a matter for this united states congress, not so much a matter for the attorney general. We need to put our money out to assist in this activity according to the rules established by the congress.
FEINSTEIN: Well, I’m delighted that Senator Cornyn is here. I quoted him directly from the floor that the Hyde Amendment would not prevent the distribution of these funds. And so I hope you would agree to that, and that certainly is most important to me because congress has spoken. And the bill is law.
SESSIONS: I understand that. And we would follow the law.
Feinstein also questioned Sessions on Roe v. Wade, which Sessions once called “colossally erroneous,” giving powerful testimony of her own about what life was like prior to that Supreme Court decision.
FEINSTEIN: The constitution also protects a woman’s right to have access to health care and determine whether to terminate her pregnancy, in consultation with her family and her doctor. I am old enough to remember what it was like before, when I was a student at Stanford, and thereafter in the early 1960s. I actually sentenced women in California convicted of felony abortion to state prison for a maximum sentences of up to ten years, and they still went back to it because the need was so great. So was the morbidity and so was the mortality. This right, passed now by the constitution, as recognized in Roe, Planned Parenthood v. Casey and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Whole Woman’s Health and Hellerstedt. In fact, the court recently struck down onerous regulations imposed by Texas on women’s health clinics. You have referred to Roe v. Wade as, quote, “one of the worst, colossally erroneous Supreme Court decisions of all time,” end quote. Is that still your view?
SESSIONS: It is. I believe it violated the constitution and really attempted to set policy and not follow law. It is the law of the land. It has been so established and settled for quite a long time, and it deserves respect and I would respect it and follow it.
FEINSTEIN: On November 14th, 2016, appearing on the TV show “60 minutes,” the president-elect said that the issue of same-sex marriage was, quote, “already settled. It’s the law. It was settled in the supreme court. It’s done, and I’m fine with that.” Do you agree that the issue of same-sex marriage is settled law?
SESSIONS: The Supreme Court has ruled on that. The dissents dissented vigorously, but it was 5-4, and five justices on the Supreme Court, a majority of the court, has established the definition of marriage for the entire United States of America. And I will follow that decision.
FEINSTEIN: Here’s another question: If you believe same-sex marriage is settled law, but a woman’s right to choose is not, what is the difference?
SESSIONS: Well, I haven’t said that the woman’s right to choose or the Roe v. Wade and its progeny is not the law of the land or not clear today. So I would follow that law.
Feinstein also made a point of bringing up the letter signed by law professors from 49 states in which they vehemently opposed Sessions’ nomination based on his “racially insensitive” record.
FEINSTEIN: I would like to ask one question based on the letter that we received for 1,400 law professors. They are from 49 states. Only Alaska is left out. I inquired why and they said because Alaska doesn’t have a law school, so it’s a pretty comprehensive list representing law professors in every state that has a law school. What they said, and this is what I want you to respond to, “Nothing in Senator Sessions public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge. All of us believe it’s unacceptable for someone with Senator Sessions’ record to lead the Department of Justice.” So I want your response to this, and answer to the question, how do you intend to put behind you what are strongly felt personal views, take off the political hat and be an attorney general who fairly enforces the law and the constitution for all?
SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, I would direct their attention to, first, to the remarks of Senator Specter, who in his entire career said he made one vote that he would regret, and that was the vote against me. He indicated he thought that I was an egalitarian. A person who treated people equally and respected people equally. This caricature of me in 1986 was not correct. I had become United States attorney. I supported, as the civil rights attorneys said, major civil rights cases in my district that integrated schools, prosecuted the Klan, that ended single member districts that denied African-Americans the right to hold office. I did everything I was required to do. And the complaints about the voter fraud case and the complaints about the Klan case that I vigorously prosecuted and supported are false. And I do hope this hearing today will show that I conducted myself honorably and properly at that time and that I am the same person, perhaps wiser and maybe a little better, I hope so, today than I was then. But I did not harbor the kind of animosities and race-based discrimination ideas that were — I was accused of. I did not.
It was heartening to see Feinstein bring up these incredibly important, and contentious, issues, and for her to press Sessions for clear and honest answers. Though of course, his formulaic answers in this hearing do not guarantee that his work as Attorney General would follow suit. As my colleague Ginger McKnight-Chavers has noted, Sessions’ attempts to sanitize his past are seen through quite easily, and it appears he is continuing his efforts to remake the man he was in the past, and the man he continues to be today.
Further to that, in a statement, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue called out Sessions’ racism and his hostility to women’s rights:
“It’s no wonder that Sen. Sessions kicks off the week-long marathon of speed nominations, since his record wouldn’t withstand the light of day if given a full public vetting. Sen. Sessions’ record of misogyny and racism makes him unfit to serve in this—or really any—position: he has refused to protect health clinics from acts of anti-abortion terrorism, doesn’t take sexual assault seriously, and even a GOP-led Senate decided that he was too racist to become a federal judge. If confirmed as Attorney General, he will directly threaten the freedom and equality of people across our nation—particularly women and people of color. The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee should follow its own example and reject Sessions for a promotion once again. He has no business being our nation’s most powerful law enforcement official.”
Sessions can insist that everyone else has it wrong about his past and his character, but the facts of history are just that — facts. And Feinstein’s airing of those facts in the hearing was a necessary service, bringing them into the national conversation so that everyone knows precisely who he truly is.