The Sotomayor Sessions

Will Republicans continue to advance divisive politics rooted in America’s sad history of racism and exclusion? Or can they rise to meet the challenges of 21st-century, multicultural America with dignity and honor?

Sotomayor and Sen. Jeff Sessions. Getty Images/Win McNamee

It is likely that the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the Court of Appeals ruling in that case will come up for debate at the confirmation hearings, and Sessions is not alone in viewing Sotomayor’s position as fair game for questioning. But why is Sessions attempting to distract from the core business at hand—evaluating Sotomayor’s overall judicial track record? What can he hope to gain with his attacks on her before the hearings even begin?

His choice of the word “infected” was a clear attempt to position Sotomayor as an unwelcomed, possibly malignant, presence on our American body politic. We’ve seen this tactic before from Sessions. If it were his only gaffe, the outburst might be viewed a poor choice of words. But Sessions’ record of racially inflammatory comments stretches back too far to not recognize ill-intent: He once called a fully-grown black man who worked as an aide a “boy.” During his years as a federal prosecutor in Alabama, Sessions said he believed the 1964 Voting Rights Act had been an “intrusive” piece of legislation. My own organization has received the blunt end of his peculiarly retrograde comments: Sessions told Justice Department lawyers in Alabama that he viewed the NAACP as “un-American” and that our work was “Communist-inspired.”

Sessions does no favor to the Republican Party with his charged rhetoric. It reminds people of an ignominious past; it reminds us of days when this country was much more pessimistic about race relations; and it reminds people of a day when the Republican Party made itself the home for politicians with extreme racial sentiments. 
Judge Sotomayor has a right to enter the hearings with all the respect and goodwill accorded to other Supreme Court nominees, and she also has a right to a process that has legitimacy and integrity. We hope that the Judiciary Committee members don’t fall prey to divisive tactics and that they move the Sotomayor nomination to the Senate floor for full, well-deserved confirmation.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is the new president and CEO of the NAACP, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this week (July 11-16).