RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The first of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees is getting a hearing this morning. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was one of Trump's earliest supporters in Congress, now he's in line to become the next U.S. attorney general. The nomination has triggered a lot of protests from civil rights groups in particular. Protesters have made their voice heard, in fact, interrupting Senator Sessions as he gave his opening remarks at the hearing this morning.
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JEFF SESSIONS: I also want to thank my dear friends...
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: No KKK. No fascist USA. No Trump. No KKK. No fascist USA. Sessions is a racist...
MARTIN: NPR's congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang has been watching the confirmation hearing. She joins us now on the line for an update. Hi, Ailsa.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hi there.
MARTIN: Just start off by telling us why Jeff Sessions is such a controversial nomination for this post.
CHANG: Well, there's a lot of concern about both his record on immigration and his record on civil rights. The chorus of opposition Democrats have heard from outside groups has been really intense. Here's how Dianne Feinstein described it. She's the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
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DIANNE FEINSTEIN: There have been sit-ins, protests and writings, and the committee has received letters of opposition from 400 different civil rights organizations, 1,400 law professors, a thousand law students, a broad task force of organizations that oppose domestic violence, 70 reproductive health organizations and many, many others.
CHANG: I mean, for one, Democrats are really concerned about his views on immigration. Sessions has been the most vocal opponent of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate. He opposes a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally. He does appear to support some ban on Muslims entering the country. And he's even supported limiting legal immigration because he said that would protect jobs. But Democrats, again, are also really concerned about his civil rights record.
MARTIN: All right, so let's try to get specific. What is it in Session's background that's giving people so much pause?
CHANG: Well, he's seen as unfriendly to LGBT rights. For example, in the Senate, he's voted against making it a federal hate crime to attack people based on their sexual orientation. And many Democrats haven't forgotten Sessions' controversial career as U.S. attorney in the southern district of Alabama back in the 1980s. Those were the years that did him in during Sessions' last confirmation hearing when he was nominated by then-President Reagan to be a federal district court judge.
MARTIN: And back in 1986, the Senate actually failed to confirm Sessions for a judgeship. Even many Republicans back then took issues with comments that he made about black lawyers and the KKK. Can you remind us what happened there?
CHANG: Yeah. During those confirmation hearings, a Justice Department lawyer said Sessions had called the NAACP and the ACLU un-American and communist-inspired. And it didn't even end there, a black prosecutor who had worked closely with Sessions testified that Sessions had said to him that he used to think the KKK was OK until he found out some of them were pot smokers. Sessions later said that that was just a really bad joke on his part. But that same black prosecutor also alleged that Sessions had once called him boy. Sessions adamantly denied that. There's another aspect to his prosecutor career which bothers Democrats, and that's a voter fraud case Sessions pursued against three black civil rights workers back in the 1980s. Many thought it was based on really, really flimsy evidence. Black voters saw this as a case of voter intimidation, and in the end Sessions got zero convictions out of the case.
MARTIN: Hold on. So how is Sessions and his supporters - how are they - are they trying to defend his civil rights record?
CHANG: They absolutely are. They've been reminding people that also when Sessions was U.S. attorney in Alabama, he vigorously prosecuted two KKK members who murdered a black teenager in 1981. They're also pointing out that, you know, Sessions as a senator has been known for doing some important bipartisan work. A few years ago, he helped Democrats address sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Sessions didn't think the much harsher penalties African-American men were getting for possession of crack was fair, so they applaud his work on that.
And Sessions has also said that of the 10 most important cases he's personally handled as prosecutor, four were related to voting rights and one was a school desegregation case. But former Justice Department lawyers have come forward and said that his involvement in those cases was not at all substantive.
MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang. Thanks so much, Ailsa.
CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.