New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker broke with precedent when he testified Wednesday against Sen. Jeff Sessions' nomination as U.S. attorney general, contending that the Alabama Republican had demonstrated "hostility" toward civil rights he would be tasked with protecting.
"The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve toward justice; we must bend it," Booker told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "America needs an attorney general who is resolute and determined to bend the arc."
But, he said, "Sen. Sessions' record does not speak to that desire, intention, or will."
As a federal prosecutor, Sessions was accused of making racially tinged statements, including referring to the NAACP - along with the American Civil Liberties Union - as "un-American." Those allegations, along with his prosecution of black voting rights activists, were cited by opponents when Sessions was rejected for a federal judgeship in 1986.
In 2013, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act that required federal approval to change the election process in places with histories of discrimination, Sessions said the decision was "good news, I think, for the South."
Sessions' record "indicates that he won't" pursue justice for women, protect equal rights for gay or lesbian Americans, or defend voting rights, Booker said Wednesday.
Sessions is also at odds with support for criminal justice reform, Booker said. And with national debate over racial bias and policing, Sessions would not bring needed change, Booker said. He said circumstances demanded "a more courageous empathy than Sen. Sessions demonstrates."
Wednesday marked the second day of testimony on Sessions' nomination. Sessions testified Tuesday, saying that accusations of racism against him were "damnably false," and that he "abhorred" the Ku Klux Klan. He also said he did not support barring Muslims from the United States and pledged that if he were confirmed as attorney general, statues protecting civil rights of LGBT Americans would be "fully enforced."
Some senators had criticized Booker's decision to testify against Sessions, calling it a political move. The New Jersey senator had worked with Sessions in the past - as Booker noted Wednesday, pointing to their efforts to award the Congressional Gold Medal to marchers in Selma.
But given the "choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country," Booker said.
Booker, whose parents took part in a sting to help integrate a North Jersey suburb where real estate agents refused to sell to African Americans, said he was "literally sitting here, because of people, marchers in Alabama, volunteer lawyers in New Jersey, who saw it as their affirmative duty to pursue justice."
While ensuring law and order is critical, "law and order without justice is unattainable," Booker said.
Joining Booker in testifying against Sessions were Rep. John Lewis of Georgia - one of the Selma marchers - and Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Willie Huntley, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama hired by Sessions, supported Sessions. "At no time that I have known Jeff has he demonstrated any racial insensitivity," Huntley, who is black, told senators.