WASHINGTON (CN) – At a marathon hearing on his confirmation Tuesday, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions – President-elect Donald Trump's choice to serve as attorney general – defended his civil rights record and promised to enforce laws faithfully.
Sessions, one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, spent part of the more than 10-hour hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee defending himself against claims he made racist remarks while serving as a prosecutor, overzealously pursued a voter-fraud case against black defendants and expressed some sympathy for the KKK.
The former prosecutor fiercely denied these allegations, which sank his 1986 nomination to a federal judgeship, saying they created a "caricature" that did not represent his true views.
"It has been very disappointing and painful to have it suggested that I think the Klan was okay when we did everything possible to destroy or defeat and prosecute Klan members who were involved in this crime," Sessions said.
Pushing back against criticism his prosecution of a voter-fraud case in Alabama as racially tinged, Sessions noted that the complainants in the case were also black and framed the case as about protecting the rights of minority voters.
He countered charges, including those shouted from protesters in the back of the room, that he harbors racist views by speaking proudly of his efforts to prosecute two members of the KKK who kidnapped and killed a black teenager.
"There is nothing I am more proud of than my 14 years of service in the Department of Justice," Sessions said. "I love and venerate that great institution."
The decades-old allegations against Sessions have received new life since his nomination, playing alongside a closer scrutiny of the conservative Republican's voting record. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, is scheduled to testify against Sessions during the second day of the hearing.
A host of civil rights groups and a cadre of lawyers and legal scholars have vocally opposed Sessions' nomination, writing letters and staging press conferences urging the Senate to reject him.
While Republicans generally lobbed questions at Sessions to allow him to easily rebuff liberal criticism that has swirled around him in recent weeks, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee were tougher on their long-time colleague.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairing her first hearing as the top Democrat on the committee, expressed concerns that Sessions – one of Trump’s first supporters – would be able to keep himself independent of the future president in order to faithfully enforce laws.
"There is deep fear on what a Trump administration will bring in many places, and this is the context in which we must consider Sen. Sessions' record and qualifications to become the chief law enforcer for America," Feinstein said. "Communities across this country are concerned about whether they will be able to rely on the Department of Justice to protect their rights and freedoms. These freedoms are so cherished, they are what make us unique among nations."
Sessions tried to put these concerns to rest early in the hearing, saying he would call the president out when he overstepped his authority. A frequent critic of the Justice Department under Obama, Sessions said it is important for the agency to stay nonpartisan.