As It Happens

Civil rights lawyer 'alarmed, saddened and disappointed' by Jeff Sessions as attorney general

J. Gerald Hebert testified to Congress about Jeff Sessions in the 1980s. Hebert says Sessions made racist remarks about organizations like the NAACP and ACLU.
U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), has been appointed by president-elect Donald Trump to be U.S. attorney general. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTX2U6W5 (Mike Segar/Reuters)

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On Friday, President-elect Donald Trump announced Republican Jeff Sessions as his pick for the office of attorney general. This isn't the first time the Alabama senator has been in the national spotlight.

In 1986, Sessions was also nominated by president Ronald Reagan to the federal bench. However, he was rejected by Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary committee for a federal judgeship, over accusations of racism.

One of the people who testified before Congress during the confirmation hearings was J. Gerald Hebert.

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off from Houston, Texas. 

Carol Off: Mr. Hebert, when you heard today that Donald Trump has nominated Jeff Sessions for attorney general, what was your reaction? 

J. Gerald Hebert: I was alarmed, saddened and disappointed because I know Jeff Sessions well from my time in the justice department when I worked there when he was the U.S. attorney. I followed his record ever since in the last 30 years, and I think he opposes some of the laws that he would be in charge of enforcing. I don't think he would enforce laws in an even-handed, fair and just way. 

CO: In 1986, you spoke before Congress about Mr. Sessions. What did you say in that testimony? 

JGH: In that testimony, I was asked about comments that he had made to me when I was also a United States attorney handling a major voting rights case in Mobile, Alabama where his office was. I was working out of that office to handle this litigation. He made comments to me about the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) being un-American, referring to them as "commie, pinko organizations." There had been a rumour that a federal judge had referred to a white civil rights lawyer as being a disgrace to his race. I asked him about it, and he said, "Well, maybe he is." 

U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Al) waves to the crowd as he speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSIM9E (Mike Segar/Reuters)

CO: A disgrace to his race for what reason? 

JGH: Because he was a white person handling cases on behalf of black citizens and challenging the status quo. 

CO: Did Mr. Sessions dispute your recollection when you testified this before Congress? 

JGH: I'm glad you asked that question because he didn't dispute my comments. In fact, he acknowledged that sometimes he has a loose tongue. He said at one point, "I don't dispute that I've said those things. I don't know why I would say those things." He did dispute comments made by others but he never disputed the comments that I reported to him which I heard from my own ears directly from his mouth. 

He's continued to oppose basic civil rights measures. In fact, he holds views that are largely unsupported by cases that civil rights lawyers like me have developed over the years.- J. Gerald Hebert

CO: He disputed what African-American prosecutor Thomas Figures said. He testified that Mr. Sessions had referred to him as "boy" and had made remarks about how he should be careful about what he says to white folks. And, [there was] something else about the Klu Klux Klan. What did he say about the KKK? 

JGH: What he said about the Klan was that he never really thought poorly about the Klan until he found out they smoked marijuana. That's what Figures said. I never heard Jeff Sessions say that. He denied that he ever said that. He in fact, justified that he abhors the Klan. 

CO: These were things that happened in the early 1980s. Do you have any reason to believe that he continues to hold these views or would make these kinds of remarks now? 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is introduced by U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions at the "Retired American Warriors" conference during a campaign stop in Herndon, Va., Monday shortly before the New York attorney-general ordered the Trump Foundation to stop fundraising in the state. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

JGH: I do. It was 30 years ago and a lot of time has passed. But as you've pointed out correctly, he never really apologized for the things that he said. 

He's continued to oppose basic civil rights measures. In the Congress, he's spoken out against issues that I think are based on his opinions and not based on facts. In fact, he holds views that are largely unsupported by cases that civil rights lawyers like me have developed over the years.

He prosecuted some black citizens in Alabama for vote fraud. They were all acquitted because I think all they were ultimately found to be doing were helping other voters who were disabled, absentee or by-mail. 

Republican Senator Jeff Sessions reads a copy of U.S. President Barack Obama's Fiscal Year 2013 budget in February 2012 with a piece of paper written on it that says 'Debt on Arrival.' (Larry Downing/Reuters)

I think there's a record over the 30 years of really showing that not only doesn't he believe in some of the laws that he would be now enforcing as an attorney general, he wouldn't enforce them in an even-handed and fair way. 

CO: In December, when Mr. Trump called for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering in the United States. There was a resolution from the Senate to affirm that the U.S. could not bar people from the country because of their religion. 

He voted against that resolution. He said it would make "global migration to the United States a human right." Is that consistent in what you think he would continue in his policies as a lawmaker? 

JGH: My view is that while he will claim on the one hand to be an attorney general for all people, he would not be. He would instead instead punish certain people and he would be unfair to certain groups because of pre-held views. 

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sits with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (L) and retired U.S. Army General Keith Kellogg (R) during a national security meeting with advisors at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 7, 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

CO: Why do you think that Mr. Trump would want him to be the attorney general?

JGH: I really could only speculate. He was one of the first senators to come out and support Donald Trump. He's a sitting U.S. Senator on the judiciary committee. It certainly isn't the nomination that you would pick if you were trying to unite the United States rather than divide it. 

CO: We also heard in the campaign that Mr. Trump believes that Hillary Clinton should be locked up. Do you think that Jeff Sessions would support an effort to go after Ms. Clinton on some kind of grounds of that nature? 

JGH: I hope not. But if he's a vindictive individual and he has a record of not being even-handed and fair-minded, then I think there's a possibility of that. 

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with J. Gerald Hebert. 

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