Judicial confirmations ain’t beanbag, but Democrats opposing Jeff Sessions’ 1986 nomination to federal district court repeatedly chose the low road, egged on by then-Senator Joe Biden, who was the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee. Judiciary Committee Democrats collected information provided “confidentially” to the American Bar Association, deposed government attorneys, and aired anonymous slanders by Mobile County Democrats. Then-Senator Joe Biden and the other Democrats only called a handful of witnesses with personal knowledge of Sessions, and several of those had major credibility problems. Nevertheless, wild accusations of racism from the few witnesses the Democrats called ended up dominating press coverage. Now that Sessions has been designated as President-elect Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, journalists have begun to rehash the old allegations.
In those days, the testimony of Thomas Figures, one of the few witnesses having personal experience with Sessions, received the most significant attention. Who is Figures? And why should we believe him?
At the time of the hearings, Figures was a lawyer in private practice from Mobile, Alabama. He had previously worked as an Assistant U.S. Attorney under Jeff Sessions for about four years, starting when Sessions became U.S. Attorney under Reagan in 1981. (Figures made oddly inconsistent statements about when he started as an AUSA. In his oral testimony, he said that he had been hired in September 1978. In a written statement provided to the committee, however, he said that he worked there “[p]rior to the middle of 1975.” And in that same statement, he also said that he had started his work there “during the Carter Administration,” consistent with his oral testimony. He did not explain or correct the contradiction.)
After the 1980 elections, politically-appointed officials like William Kimbrough, Jr., the Carter-era U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, left their posts. Kimbrough believed that staying on despite strong disagreements with the incoming Administration might lead to perception of sinister motives at work in perfectly innocent statements or actions. For that reason, Kimbrough said, Figures “probably would have been better served to leave, as I did.” But he didn’t, and Figures ended up working for Sessions until 1985.
Working for a strong Republican conservative like Sessions must have been very difficult for Figures. Deeply embedded in Alabama’s Democratic party, politics was part of Figures’ everyday life. His brother (who was later his law partner) was a state senator and a Democrat, and Figures himself had been “vice chairman of the Mobile County Democratic Conference.”
Kimbrough told the committee that he believed that Figures “became disaffected when the Republicans came into office[.]” Nevertheless, Figures had to admit that Sessions left civil rights law enforcement essentially unchanged in his district. Senator Jeremiah Denton asked Figures during the committee hearing whether Sessions had told him that he “wanted [Figures] to continue to handle civil rights cases?” Figures’ response was simple: “Yes, sir.” Sessions also told Figures that he wanted him “to come to him to discuss any problems” in that area “because he wanted to ensure that those cases were properly handled.” He also acknowledged that Sessions had deferred to his recommendations about pursuing civil rights cases (except on the criminal ones) and “never withdrew a case assignment because he disagreed” with Figures.
Figures appreciated several things about Sessions’ tenure as U.S. Attorney. He acknowledged that Sessions had “made substantial progress in rooting out political corruption in the city of Mobile,” noting one case that “was a major step toward reducing bribes and case-fixing in the State court system.”
On the other hand, Figures had difficult interpersonal relationships at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. One colleague, a fellow AUSA named Ed Vulevich, said that Figures had a “pretty bad attitude problem,” “carrie[d] his feelings on his sleeve,” and had “considerable difficulty dealing with some investigative agents or agencies.” His “main problem,” the colleague said, was “getting along with people.” Not surprisingly, Figures came across to Vulevich as having “somewhat of a persecution complex.” Vulevich described the problem this way: “I might best describe it as the man in a football stadium with 80,000 people but he thinks that when the team huddles, they are all talking about him.”
Some of Figures’ accusations involved statements that are clearly deadpan or gallows humor. At the hearing, the senators confronted Sessions with Figures’ claim that Sessions had said: “I thought those guys [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK until I learned they smoked pot.” The hearing transcript records that there was laughter in the committee room following the quotation, indicating that the audience thought it was funny, too. So did an attorney from the Civil Rights Division, Barry Kowalski, who testified that the statement “clearly was intended as humor.” Moreover, it was apparently funny enough to repeat to others, with Kowalski repeating the joke often enough that he was “not certain how many times” he passed it on. Albert Glenn, another Justice attorney, said that he “took it wholly as a joke and humor. It never occurred to me that there was any seriousness to it. There was no question in my mind at the time that it was meant humorously.” The only person who didn’t get the joke was Thomas Figures, who was convinced that Sessions said it in a “serious manner.”
In another instance, Figures appeared to be baiting Sessions with a news story reporting that the NAACP had challenged some Reagan Administration position on affirmative action. He said that he said, “really in jest, well, there goes that subversive NAACP again.” Figures claims that in response, Sessions blushed, became “very serious,” and “became very stoic” before saying that he did not think that they were subversive, but that the NAACP and some of its left-wing partners were “un-American organizations with antitraditional American values.” Sessions explained to the committee that he was complaining about the mission creep that characterizes organizations that start out focusing on civil rights issues like discrimination and “lose their moral authority” by becoming de facto political organizations.
Other allegations failed to survive any scrutiny whatsoever. Figures accused Sessions of calling him “boy” in front of three colleagues at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but all of those colleagues responded that they had never heard anything like that. Figures even told the committee that the offensive comment was made “regularly” by Sessions and the other assistants in the office, although he later tried to claim (falsely) that he had not used the word “regularly.” Figures also claimed that Sessions had told him to “be careful what you say to white folks.” Sessions flatly denied saying “white folks” but did say that he admonished Figures for making a cutting remark to a secretary that “hurt her feelings.” In an ironic twist, Sessions said that Figures had admitted to sometimes getting in trouble by making jokes that people take too seriously.
As before, America Rising Squared was enormously helpful to preparing this piece.