Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, testifies during his confirmation hearing to be Attorney General of the US before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 10, 2017, in Washington, DC.   / AFP PHOTO / MOLLY RILEYMOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images
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Story highlights

Booker, Rep. John Lewis and Rep. Cedric Richmond each delivered emotional testimony

Booker is the first sitting senator to testify against a fellow sitting senator at a confirmation hearing for a Cabinet position

(CNN) —  

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker gave an impassioned and unprecedented plea to the Senate on Wednesday to vote against Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general and his fellow senator, Jeff Sessions.

Booker, civil rights legend Georgia Rep. John Lewis and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond each delivered emotional testimony that Sessions’ record on civil rights disqualifies him from serving atop the Justice Department under President-elect Trump.

“The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve toward justice, we must bend it,” Booker said. “America needs an attorney general who is resolute and determined to bend the arc. Sen. Sessions record does not speak to that desire, intention or will.”

Booker became the first sitting senator to testify against a fellow sitting senator at a confirmation hearing for a Cabinet position. His panel with other lawmakers and supporters of Sessions was added to the hearings at the request of the top Democrat on the committee, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, though Democrats criticized Chairman Chuck Grassley for scheduling the members of Congress at the end of all proceedings.

The testimony from Booker, Lewis and Richmond against Sessions was the emotional finale of two days of hearings that returned repeatedly to the issue of race relations and civil rights in the United States.

Both Sessions’ supporters and detractors were at times passionate in their position. Sessions and his backers defended his record as the victim of character assassination, saying that the events of his unsuccessful 1986 confirmation hearing to be a federal judge were being unfairly misconstrued 30 years later to malign a man with a record of fighting for civil rights.

The Democrats and civil rights activists who testified, however, said that the record from the ‘80s not only stood today, but that Sessions has shown a pattern of disregard for the at-risk members of society throughout his time in the Senate.

Democrats failed to land any knockout blows on Sessions during the hearing, with the Republicans on the committee unanimously coming to his defense as a fair enforcer of the law. The came closest when Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken questioned Sessions on exaggerating his civil rights record in past statements and his Senate questionnaire.

But the committee also treated Sessions with respect and warmness as a fellow colleague, a fact noted by his former staffer on the Judiciary Committee, William Smith.

“Members of this committee know Sen. Sessions … is fair and honest,” Smith said. “After 20 years of knowing Sen. Sessions, I have not seen the slightest evidence of racism because it does not exist. I know a racist when I see one, and I have seen more than one. Sen. Sessions is not one.”

Sessions will likely be confirmed by the GOP majority Senate.

Booker, Lewis give emotional testimony

Booker’s decision to testify has thrust him – already a fixture on lists of potential 2020 presidential candidates – into the limelight.

Booker said his “conscience” and “country” motivated him to speak out against his fellow senator, even though he acknowledged he has enjoyed “collegiality” with Sessions, working on a bill to give the Congressional Gold Medal to civil rights marchers.

“Yeah, I’ve been criticized, but if you’re not being criticized in America, you’re probably not doing a lot of good things,” Booker said after the hearing.

The panel focused significantly on the issue of “law and order,” which Sessions himself touted as part of his tough-on-crime pitch to be attorney general. While his supporters praised Sessions for being a “law and order” candidate, his critics say that “law and order” is more than law enforcement – and Lewis spoke about how “law and order” was used to justify oppression when he grew up in the Jim Crow South.

“Law and order without justice is unobtainable,” Booker said. “They are inextricably tied together. If there is no justice, there is no peace.”

Booker said Sessions would uphold the responsibility of the Justice Department in pursuing “civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all of our citizens.”

“In many times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility toward these convictions,” Booker said.

Lewis also testified against Sessions, citing his experience and history of the civil rights movement.

“It doesn’t matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who’s going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people who need help, for people who have been discriminated against,” Lewis said.

“We all live in the same house – the American house. We need someone as attorney general who is going to look out for all of us and not just for some of us,” he added.

Richmond said the Congressional Black Caucus also opposed the nomination, and added his objection to the fact that he, Lewis and Booker were not given the courtesy of testifying earlier in the proceedings.

“To have a senator, a House member and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of all of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus,” Richmond said.

Defending Sessions

Sessions allies who have previously worked with him testified on his behalf, saying the media portrayal of Sessions during the hearing doesn’t match their experience.

“One of the things I can say about Jeff is that he’s always been the same person that I’ve known,” said Willie Huntley, a former assistant United States attorney in Alabama. “He’s always been available for me and always been there when I needed him. At no point in the time that I’ve known Jeff has he demonstrated any racial insensitivity.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also asked the president of the NAACP about the racial equality organization’s scorecard, reading aloud the rankings each member of the panel had received. Every Republican had 11% to 29%, while every Democrat save one had 100% – and the exception got a 96% rating.

“You’re picking things that conservative Republicans don’t agree with you on and liberal Democrats do. I hope that doesn’t make us all racist, and all of them are perfect,” Graham said in a display of frustration. “Maybe we’re all wrong and maybe we’re all right. I doubt if it’s that way.”

CNN’s Phil Mattingly contributed to this report.