Senator Al Franken (D-MN) was methodical and devastating in his questioning of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), during the latter's confirmation hearing as President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. Attorney General. Using Sessions' own words to lay the groundwork for his questions, Franken got Sessions to admit he had misled on the number of civil rights cases he prosecuted, and to further confess he does not know the attorney on a case in which he had said he was personally involved.
Senator Al Franken is not a lawyer. He made this point repeatedly while grilling Senator Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing, in order to underscore that Sessions’ carefully parsed questions about his claimed involvement sounded like nonsensical rubbish to his layman’s ears. But Franken laid out his case that Sessions has exaggerated his civil rights record as expertly as a seasoned trial lawyer.
He began by reading Sessions’ own words back to him, about the importance of not misrepresenting nominees’ records, with which Sessions agreed.
And so the trap had been set. Franken then went on to recall an interview in which Sessions had said: “I filed twenty or thirty civil rights cases to desegregate schools and political organizations and county commissions when I was United States Attorney.” Pressing Sessions on the accuracy of that claim, Franken sent the nominee into an unconvincing defense of the inflated number. Eventually, Sessions conceded: “I heard one lawyer from the Department of Justice agree with that large number, but the record doesn’t justify it.”
Having sufficiently demonstrated that Session could not possibly justify his claim of filing “twenty or thirty” desegregation cases, Franken moved on to demolish Sessions’ equally mendacious claim, made on his nomination questionnaire, about the “ten most significant litigated matters you personally handled.”
“Personally handed,” Franken repeated for emphasis, before referencing “three voting rights cases and a desegregation case” Sessions claimed to have personally handled — a claim that was refuted by former Justice Department civil rights attorneys J. Gerald Herbert, Joseph D. Rich, and William Yeomans, who were directly involved in initiating and litigating the cases, which Franken asked Sessions to explain.
Sessions’ argument was that his name was on the filings, to which Franken responded incredulously, “So that’s your personal involvement — was that your name was on it?”
They went back and forth some more, with Sessions getting agitated as he insisted, “My name was listed number one!” At which point, Franken noted he is not a lawyer, but that sounded pretty flimsy to him: “It seems to me that if a lawyer has just his name added to a document here or a filing there, that lawyer would be misrepresenting his record if he said he ‘personally handled’ these cases.”
Sessions pushed back, saying he had been available to the attorneys, and then made the incredible admission: “I don’t know Mr. Rich. Perhaps he handled a case that I never worked with.” Franken quite rightly jumped all over it: “One of the cases that you listed was a case that Mr. Rich handled, so if you don’t know him, it’s hard for me to believe that you personally handled it.”
Franken again noted that he is not a lawyer, but that Sessions’ answers did not make sense to him: “I’m one of the few members of this committee that’s not a lawyer, but when I hear ‘I filed a case,’ I don’t know some of the parlance — it might have a special meaning in legal parlance — but to me, as a layman, it sounds to me like ‘filed’ means ‘I led the case’ or ‘I supervised the case.’ It doesn’t mean that my name was on it.”
I am quite sure that Senator Franken is not alone in finding Sessions’ defenses of “personally handling” cases wanting, especially given his shocking admission that he does not know the lead attorney on one of the cases he claims to have personally handled.
Sessions clearly misrepresented his record in order that he might not appear to be as hostile to civil rights as he actually is. And Franken was not about to let him get away with it. Good.