WASHINGTON -- Civil rights groups claimed victory following the Senate Judiciary Committee's rejection of a judicial nominee accused of making racist remarks and wrongly prosecuting a voter-fraud case.
The panel, voting 10-8, refused Thursday to recommend that the Senate confirm Jefferson Sessions III to be a district judge in southern Alabama. It also rejected, on a 9-9 vote, a motion to send his name to the Senate without a recommendation on how senators should vote.
'Racial insensitivity is something that is totally unacceptable, and I think today's vote was a demonstration of that,' said Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
He said the vote 'was a great victory for the Senate's responsibility to advise and consent.'
The U.S. attorney in Mobile, Ala., since 1981, Sessions, 39, was accused of making several racist statements, including calling a black former assistant U.S. attorney 'boy.' He also was accused of wrongly prosecuting three civil rights leaders, who were acquitted, for alleged voter fraud.
In testimony before the committee -- which first took up the nomination late last year -- he denied using the term 'boy,' defended his handling of the voter-fraud case and said he believed he had been wrongly characterized.
Speaking on the steps of the federal courthouse in Mobile Thursday, Sessions said he continued to believe he was qualified, but added, 'The vote has been taken. The matter is over. I accept the vote of the Judiciary Committee.'
Sessions -- only the second judicial nominee in 49 years to be rejected by the committee -- said he would continue as U.S. attorney, and pledged to 'treat everyone with equal justice as I have before.'
Attorney General Edwin Meese defended Session's qualifications and called the committee's vote 'an appalling surrender to the politics of ideology.'
The reaction was much different, however, from committee Democrats and representatives of civil rights groups. Coretta Scott King -- wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. -- had urged rejection of Sessions.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., termed the vote a 'clear signal to the Reagan administration that their judicial nominees must meet at least a minimum standard of sensitivity and commitment to equal justice for every citizen.'
Elaine Jones of the NAACP called the vote a 'great day for the Senate,' and Linda Grant of The National Black Caucus of State Legislators termed the outcome 'a shot in the arm' for civil rights in America.