By Ashley G’18
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was recently silenced after denouncing Republican Senator Jeff Sessions for being unworthy of the position as U.S. attorney general. The Democratic Senator referenced Senator Edward Kennedy and, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King’s letters that condemned Sessions as federal judge back in 1986. In objection to Warren’s statement, majority leader Mitch McConnell accused Warren for having “impugned the motives and conduct” of Senator Sessions, a violation of rule XIX of the Senate rules. According to Senate rule XIX,“no Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” Although Sessions’ nomination for federal judge was withdrawn after Kennedy and King’s letters, Warren’s reading of the same words resulted in being silenced on the senate floor. Following a party-line vote of 49 to 43, the Senator was asked to be seated and silent on the matter of Sessions’ nomination until a decision was made.
Warren quoted King’s previous assertion that Sessions, “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.” She also criticized Sessions using Senator Kennedy’s words, stating that he is a, “disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.” Senator Warren brought to attention King’s letter that criticized Sessions for restricting African-Americans from the right to vote to question whether he is suitable for his position as attorney general. Her main intent was not to discuss whether his actions in the past were right or wrong, but to re-evaluate, taking into consideration the information given, Sessions’ nomination.
Being silenced on the senate floor, however, did not stop Warren from reading Coretta Scott King’s full letter on a broadcast through Facebook Live. The Senator claims she wants to bring awareness to the people, especially the Republican senators who are considering nominating Sessions, of his character as shown through past events and opinions when he was U.S. attorney of Alabama. Warren deemed it important to make her case because, “the integrity of our Justice Department depends on an attorney general who will fight for the rights of all people. An honest evaluation of Jeff Sessions’ record shows that he is not that person.” Congressman Cedric Richmond from Louisiana agreed, “Mrs. King’s characterization of then U.S. Attorney Senator Sessions was accurate in 1986 and it is accurate now.” Warren also spoke out on Twitter:
In addition to more than five million views on Facebook, the public showed immense support for Warren on Twitter, where they shared Coretta Scott King’s letter along with the hashtag #LetLizSpeak. Warren’s stand both gained support and spurred debate among the people and Senators alike.
Advocates of Warren claim that rule XIX has been implemented selectively. Democrats have brought up past occurrences of Republicans who condemned other senators on the senate floor but were not silenced as Warren was. In particular, Senator Ted Cruz criticized McConnell for repeatedly lying about the Export-Import Bank. In another case, Arkansas’ Senator Tom Cotton portrayed and labeled Senator and former Democratic leader Harry Reid’s leadership as “cancerous”. Republicans, on the other hand, argue that the opposition is a result of the Democrats’ refusal to accept the outcome of the presidential election.
Republican Senator John Cornyn suggested that Ms. Warren was silenced due to her citing of Senator Kennedy’s remark. However, Republican Senator Mike Rounds informed that Ms. Warren was warned while reading Kennedy’s letter, but was silenced over King’s letter. Warren responded with shock that, “the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.”
The silencing of Ms. Warren seems reminiscent of a resolution proposed by Representative James Hammond of South Carolina dating back to 1836. That year, the House of Representatives passed the “gag rule”, which forbid the consideration or discussion of abolition petitions. Essentially, it was a silencing on the issue of slavery, as it urged that, “all petitions, memorials, or resolutions regarding slavery should automatically be tabled and that no further action be taken upon them.” Representative of Massachusetts and former president John Quincy Adams protested against the gag rule, proclaiming it to be a violation of the right to freedom of speech and freedom to petition. In spite of Adams’ numerous attempts to oppose the rule, the gag continued to be enforced until it was repealed in 1844. Some historians say the gag rule diverged from its original intention. Rather than deviating attention from the discussion of slavery, the rule brought more publicity to abolition petitions as people began to question their right to debate slavery.
On February 8, Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed as U.S. attorney general after a 52 to 47 vote that was predominantly along party lines. Although Warren’s cause did not result in the desired outcome, it did bring about awareness and debate regarding the established procedures and practice of the regulations in the Senate. Similar to the congressional gag rule on slavery in the 19th century, Warren’s silencing reminds us of the prominence of the discussion of our civil liberties and representative government.nt