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Sen. Jeff Sessions defends his civil rights record, promises to prioritize law over his personal views

Del Quentin Wilber, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

Even so, Sessions has a long and complicated history on racial matters, and the toughest questions posed by senators focused on how he would deal with civil rights laws, hate crimes and access to the polls.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, set a tough tone by saying that since the election, many citizens have expressed "deep anxiety about the direction of this country and whether this nominee will enforce the law fairly, evenly and without personal bias."

"Today we are not being asked to evaluate him as a senator," the California senator said, acknowledging that many of her Democratic colleagues like Sessions personally and professionally. "Will he be independent of the White House? Will he tell the president 'no' when necessary?"

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., grew testy when questioning Sessions about several civil-rights lawsuits Sessions had listed on his Senate questionnaire as examples of "significant" cases that Sessions personally litigated during his career.

The Trump transition team later said that the cases were worthy of being mentioned, even though Sessions had not been actively involved in them.

Franken suggested that the Trump campaign or Sessions were trying to inflate his civil rights accomplishments.

Sessions replied that he had listed the cases because they were "historic" that they "were the kind of cases that were national in scope, and deserved be listed on the form."

The would-be attorney general waded into many of controversial issues that have long dogged the Justice Department, including whether it should re-open its investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server while serving as secretary of State. The FBI and Justice Department decided that criminal charges were not warranted despite having determined that Clinton and her aides unintentionally sent classified information over the system.

During the campaign, Trump said he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the matter but has since backed off that pledge.

Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump's presidential bid, said he would recuse himself from any Clinton-related matters because he had often attacked her on the campaign trail.

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