[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Today, after announcing his opposition to the nomination of U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to be Attorney General, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) spoke on the Senate Floor to detail the reasoning behind his decision. Blumenthal was the first member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to announce his opposition to the nomination. Video of today’s speech is available here.
Blumenthal also discussed his specific concerns regarding Sessions’ record on civil rights at a news conference with fellow member of the Senate Judiciary Committee U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). Video of the news conference is available here
Blumenthal’s remarks as prepared for delivery are copied below.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)
Senate Floor Speech
Opposing the Nomination of U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to be
Attorney General of the United States
The Senate is holding hearings on each of President-elect Trump’s nominees to his Cabinet. Traditionally, presidents are accorded a high level of deference on assembling their own team, in part because these nominees are directly accountable to the president.
But they are accountable to the American people too.
No Cabinet member is more powerful—or has more impact on the day to day lives of Americans—than the Attorney General of the United States.
The Attorney General is indeed a general, in command of an army of thousands of lawyers whose words carry the weight and power of the people of the United States of America. He charges defendants in our name. He has sweeping authority to bring criminal charges in all federal offenses, ranging from minor misdemeanors to the most serious felonies. In a very real sense – as capital penalties can be sought for some of these crimes – he wields the power of life and death.
And the Attorney General’s authority is not only sweeping— but also uniquely independent in the President’s Cabinet. His decisions must supersede partisan politics. In most cases, there is no recourse to overrule his decisions, without political interference.
He is not just another government lawyer or even just another member of the President’s cabinet. He is the nation’s lawyer. He must be its legal conscience.
Now, the job at stake here is one that I know well. Like some of my colleagues in this body, I served as U.S. Attorney, the chief federal prosecutor in Connecticut, for several years, reporting to the United States Attorney General. For years afterward, as a private litigator and then as Attorney General of Connecticut, I fought alongside – and sometimes against – the United States Attorney General and the legal forces at his disposal.
I’ve seen it first-hand. This Attorney General’s powers are awesome. And in the best of cases, they’re inspiring, too. Even as he protects the public from the most vicious and violent criminal offenders, his role is also to protect the innocent from unfounded charges that could shatter their lives even if they were acquitted.
As Justice Robert Jackson – a former Attorney General himself – once said: his job is not to convict, but to assure justice is done.
This job requires a singular level of intellect and integrity, a nonpartisan but passionate devotion to the rule of law, and an extraordinary sense of conscience.
That’s because he is responsible for so much more than prosecuting and preventing crime and ensuring public safety. He is responsible for aggressively upholding our nation’s sacred, Constitutional commitment to protecting individual rights and liberties, and preventing infringement upon them… even by the government itself. Perhaps especially by the government.
This responsibility – for safeguarding equal justice under law – is particularly important today, at a time when those civil rights and freedoms are in peril. This historic moment demands a person whose life's work and professional record show he will make the Constitutional guarantee of equal justice under law a core mandate of his tenure.
Having reviewed his full record and recent testimony, regrettably and respectfully, I cannot support the President-elect’s nominee, our colleague and friend Jeff Sessions, for this job.
At his confirmation hearing, Senator Sessions simply said that he would follow the law and he would obey it. But the Attorney General of the United States must be more than a follower. He must be a leader. In protecting essential Constitutional rights and liberties, he must be a champion – a zealous advocate. He must actively pursue justice, not just passively follow or obey the law.
And Senator Sessions’ record reflects a hostility and antipathy – indeed, strong opposition – to civil rights and voting rights, women’s health care and privacy rights, anti-discrimination measures, and religious freedom safeguards. He has prided himself on his vociferous opposition to comprehensive immigration reform legislation – a measure that passed this body with 68 bipartisan votes – and a criminal justice reform bill that has attracted a group of 25 cosponsors, Democrats and Republicans. He even split with the majority of his own party to vote against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. He opposed hate crime prohibitions. Senator Sessions’ views and positions have been out of the mainstream – in a word, extreme. There is nothing in Senator Sessions’ record, including his testimony before the Judiciary Committee this week, that indicates he will be the Constitutional champion the nation needs at this point in its history.
Equally important, the Attorney General must speak truth to power. He must be ready, willing and able to say no to the President, and ensure that he is never above the law. Senator Sessions' record and testimony give me no confidence that he will fulfill this core task. When I asked him about enforcement of cases against illegal conflicts of interest involving the President and his family, such as violations of the Emoluments Clause and the STOCK Act, he equivocated. When I asked him about appointing a special counsel to investigate criminal wrongdoing at Deutsche Bank, owed more than $300 million by Donald Trump, he equivocated. When I asked him about abstaining from voting on other presidential nominees while he is in the Senate, he equivocated. Those answers give me no confidence that he will be the independent, non-political enforcer against conflicts of interest and official self-enrichment that the nation needs – at a moment when the incoming Administration faces ethical and legal controversies that are unprecedented in scope and scale.
Senator Sessions’ record over many years and his recent testimony fail to demonstrate the core commitments and convictions necessary in our nation’s next Attorney General. He’s failed to show he can be an unshakeable ethical voice, independent from the White House. He’s failed to prove that he will be a champion of constitutional rights. Indeed, his career demonstrates a prevailing hostility to the very rights and liberties that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer must always promote and defend.
Back in 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Senator Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship due to remarks he made, and actions he took, in a position of public trust as U.S. Attorney in Alabama. My judgment about his nomination, however, is primarily based on his record since those hearings.
On voting rights, Senator Sessions has often condoned barriers to Americans exercising their franchise. He has been a leading opponent of provisions in the Voting Rights Act designed to ensure that African Americans can vote in places like his home state of Alabama, which have a unique history of racial segregation. And he has advocated for needlessly restrictive and draconian voter ID laws, citing utterly debunked threats of rampant voter fraud as an excuse for curtailing the real and legitimate rights of entire groups of voters.
On privacy, Senator Sessions has passionately opposed this longstanding American right, which is enshrined in five decades of Supreme Court precedent. It protects women's health care, and personal decisions involving reproductive rights. At a time when these rights are facing an unprecedented assault, he has continued to condemn Roe v. Wade and the many court decisions upholding that case. Equally disturbingly, Senator Sessions is supported by extremist groups like Operation Rescue, who defend the murder of doctors and the vilification and criminalization of women. With him as Attorney General, American women would understandably feel less secure.
On religious freedom, Senator Sessions has advocated for using a religious test to determine which immigrants can enter this country. When this issue arose in Committee, Senator Sessions was the only Senator to argue forcefully for religious tests and against principles of religious liberty that have animated our Republic since its founding. With Senator Sessions as his Attorney General, a Trump Administration would enjoy a permanent green light for any racially or religiously discriminatory immigration policy that might appeal to him.
On citizenship, Senator Sessions has called for abolishing a time-honored tradition that dates back to Reconstruction. Birthright citizenship is the distinctly American concept that anyone born on our soil is a citizen of this country. We do not exclude people from citizenship based on the nationality of their parents or grandparents. Senator Sessions disagrees—a position that most other Republicans think is extreme. With Senator Sessions as Attorney General, the Trump Administration would be encouraged in attempting to deport American citizens—who have raised families and spent their entire lives here—from the only country they’ve ever known.
Senator Sessions declined my invitation at his nomination hearing to exercise moral and legal leadership, and demonstrate his resolve to serve as the nation’s legal conscience. He refused to reject the possibility of using information voluntarily provided by DACA applicants to deport them and their families. As a matter of fundamental fairness and due process, when a DREAMer provides information to our government after being invited to come out of the shadows, this information should not be used to deport that individual. As Senator Sessions as Attorney General, that sense of legal conscience would be lacking.
On issues of discrimination and equal protection, Senator Sessions has publicly opposed marriage equality, claiming it – quote – “weakens marriage,” and even tried to eliminate protections for LGBT Americans contained in the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act. He has repeatedly voted against steps to enhance enforcement against hate crimes—violent assaults involving bigotry or bias based on race, religion, sexual orientation. He even defended President-elect Trump’s shocking admission on video of his pattern of engaging in sexual assault.
Senator Sessions has said that public officials may be fairly judged by assessing who supports them. Senator Sessions is backed by groups with ties to white supremacists. He has even accepted an award and repeated campaign donations from groups whose founder openly promotes the goal of maintaining a – quote – “European-American majority” – in our society. Neither award, nor many other important parts of Senator Sessions’ history, was reported on the questionnaire he prepared for the Judiciary Committee. I gave Senator Sessions an opportunity at his hearing earlier this week to repudiate the hate groups and racist individuals who have endorsed his nomination and supported him in the past. Instead, he doubled down, saying that a man who has accused African Americans of excessive criminality and American Muslims of extensive ties to terrorism was – quote – “a most brilliant individual.”
So I reach my decision to oppose this nomination with regret, because Jeff Sessions is a colleague and friend to all of us. Indeed, I have come to like and respect him through a number of shared experiences and common causes.
He and I support our law enforcement professionals, who serve our communities and nation with dedication and courage. He and I believe that individual corporate criminal culpability should be pursued more vigorously.
But this job, this decision, this responsibility – are different. Here, my disagreements stem from bedrock Constitutional principles. And while I could envision deferring to presidential authority and supporting him for other positions, my objections to his nomination relate specifically to this particular, essential, all-powerful job.
At this historic moment, there must be no doubt about the United States Attorney General’s ironclad commitment to the bedrock principle of equal justice under law, his resolve to be an independent voice assuring that the President is never above the law and a legal conscience for the nation. Reviewing his record, I cannot assure the people of Connecticut, or the country, that Jeff Sessions would be a vigorous champion of these rights and liberties.
Therefore, I stand in opposition to his nomination.