A congressional rule that dates from before the American Civil War earned a US senator a ban on speaking during the debate over the confirmation of Jeff Sessions, President Donald J Trump’s nominee for attorney general, the government’s top law enforcement official.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, was addressing the upper chamber of the US legislature on Tuesday night when she tried to read from a 1986 letter written by Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In the letter, Mrs. King requested lawmakers at the time to deny a federal judgeship to Sessions, who was then a US attorney from Alabama. She cited his hostility towards black voting rights activists in the state as the reason. The letter likely helped keep Sessions from getting the job.
Tonight @SenateMajLdr silenced Mrs King's voice on the Sen floor - & millions who are afraid & appalled by what's happening in our country.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 8, 2017
The letter was addressed to Republican then-Senator Strom Thurmond, himself a strong supporter of segregation before it was outlawed. At the time, he was chair of the senate judiciary committee. Here is part of the letter Senator Warren tried to read aloud:
"I write to express my sincere opposition to the confirmation of Jefferson B. Sessions as a federal district court judge for the Southern District of Alabama. My professional and personal roots in Alabama are deep and lasting. Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.
I do sincerely urge you to oppose the confirmation of Mr. Sessions."
Read the full letter and statement here.
The rule that Republicans said Senator Warren allegedly violated prohibits the lawmakers from insulting each other.
As she was reading the letter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, interrupted Warren and said she had violated Rule 19.
“The senate has impugned the motivation and conduct of our colleague from Alabama. She said Senator Sessions ‘has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.’ I call the senator to order under the provision of Rule 19,” McConnell declared.
McConnell never contested the accuracy of what Warren was reciting. Rule 19 is also almost never used. The Senate vote ran along party lines, 49 Republicans to 43 Democrats, The New York Times reported.
“I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate. I ask leave of the Senate to continue my remarks,” Warren said.
“I object,” McConnell replied
“Objection is heard,” said the president pro tempore of the Senate, Steve Daines, a Montana Republican. “The Senator will take her seat.”
Warren continued reading from the letter outside the chamber, using Facebook live, according to The Washington Post.
In an inconsistency that many saw as evidence of sexism in the decision to silence Warren, Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkely was able to read the letter without interruption just hours after Warren's attempt, according to The Oregonian. Merkely tweeted his outrage.
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) February 8, 2017
The double standard was apparent to Twitter users:
— Jesse Stark (@StopNuclearWar) February 8, 2017
McConnell had earlier defended the GOP decision, but inadvertently gave his opponents a hashtag to rally around.
“Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation,” McConnell said, according to The Washington Post. “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
The terms “ShePersisted” and “LetLizSpeak” quickly became hashtags, used by outraged Twitter users to express their displeasure with the treatment of Warren, one of the most outspoken progressive voices in Congress.
Other Democratic senators sent tweets in defence of Warren.
This is unreal. Senate Republicans have ruled that any Democrat that criticizes Sessions' record will be stripped of the right to speak. https://t.co/At5fqUkVWF
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) February 8, 2017
Rule 19 has its origins in the decades leading up to the American Civil War, when lawmakers used a “gag rule” to silence proponents of abolition of slavery, specifically John Quincy Adams Jr, a congressman from Massachusetts.
Cornell law professor James Grimmelman pointed out the historic similarities on Twitter.
“Southern congressmen threatened to walk out en masse and quit the Union rather than submit to a discussionof abolition,” Grimmelman tweeted, citing the minutes of a February 6, 1837 session of the House of Representatives.
Adams had attempted to introduce a bill that would ban slavery in the District of Columbia, home to the federal government, and territory over which Congress had control. Other members of Congress silenced him with the following resolution:
“That the Hon. John Q. Adams, by the attempt just made by him to introduce a petition, purporting on the face to be from slaves, has been guilty of a gross disrespect to this House, and that he instantly be brought to the bar to receive the severe censure of the Speaker,” the resolution read, continuing: “That John Q. Adams, a member from the State of Massachusetts, by his attempt to introduce into this House a petition of slaves for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, committed an outrage on the rights and feelings of a large portion of the people of this Union, a flagrant contempt on the dignity of this House; and by extending to slaves a privilege only belonging to freemen, directly incites the slave population to insurrection; and that the said member be forthwith called to the bar of the House, and censured by the Speaker.”
So the Republican Senate’s invocation of the Rule XIX gag rule against Elizabeth Warren is just a reflection of the original Gag Rule. 12/
— James Grimmelmann (@grimmelm) February 8, 2017
Grimmelman made a direct connection between what happened to Warren and the legacy of slavery in the United States.
“Southern white men’s fragile dignity: it’s a thing. They don’t like being reminded of the disgraceful things they’ve done.”