Sessions Subordinate: I Thought I’d Be Fired If I Objected To Being Called ‘Boy’

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When it became clear that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was poised to become ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, we recalled this 2002 article by Sarah Wildman which addresses some of the controversies that kept Sessions from being confirmed in 1986 as a U.S. District Court judge in Alabama.

Wildman writes in particular that the testimonies of two witnesses–a Justice Department employee named J. Gerald Hebert, and a black Sessions subordinate named Thomas Figures–helped to doom Sessions, then a U.S. Attorney, at his Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings. According to Wildman, Hebert testified reluctantly “that in a conversation between the two men Sessions had labeled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.” And Figures–then an assistant U.S. Attorney–told the committee that “during a 1981 murder investigation involving the Ku Klux Klan, Sessions was heard by several colleagues commenting that he ‘used to think they [the Klan] were OK’ until he found out some of them were ‘pot smokers.'”

Today we obtained a copy of the transcript of the Sessions hearings–over 500-pages worth–and it turns out there’s quite a bit more. We’re still going through it, of course, but the Figures testimony alone contains some damning details.Figures recalled one occasion in which the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sent them instructions to investigate a case that Sessions had tried to close: “We had a very spirited discussion regarding how the Hodge case should then be handled; in the course of that argument, Mr. Sessions threw the file on a table, and remarked, ‘I wish I could decline on all of them.'”

All of them, according to Figures, meant civil rights cases generally. As he explained at one point: “[T]he statement, the manner in which it was delivered, the impression on his face, the manner in which his face blushed, I believe it represented a hostility to investigating and pursuing those types of matters.”

Figures said that Sessions had called him “boy” on a number of occasions, and had cautioned him to be careful what he said to “white folks. “Mr. Sessions admonished me to ‘be careful what you say to white folks,'” Figures testified. “Had Mr. Sessions merely urged me to be careful what I said to ‘folks,’ that admonition would have been quite reasonable. But that was not the language that he used.”

In response to these allegations, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) asked him if he’d ever objected to this behavior. Senator “Did you ever say anything to them? Did you ever say, knock it off, or quit it?”

Figures admitted he hadn’t: “Senator, I felt that if I had said anything or reacted in a manner in which I thought appropriate, I would be fired. I always felt that my position was very tentative around Mr. Sessions.”

At one point during his testimony, Figures paid Sessions a backhanded compliment on his overall professionalism. “In all fairness to Mr. Sessions, however, I should make clear that the problems which existed in the area of civil rights were not present in other aspects of my case assignments,” said Figures. “Except in criminal civil rights cases, Mr. Sessions deferred to my recommendations regarding whether to pursue cases, and never withdrew a case assignment because he disagreed with my recommendation.”

Thomas Figures still practices law in Mobile, Alabama, but could not be reached by phone this afternoon. We’ll keep perusing the testimony and report any other noteworthy details.

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