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How Jeff Sessions Will Transform the Department of Justice

The new attorney general will have a tremendous amount of power in judging how civil rights laws are interpreted and enforced—a fact that could wipe out the progress made under the Obama administration.
Jeff Sessions talks with reporters after being confirmed by the Senate on February 8th, 2017.

Jeff Sessions talks with reporters after being confirmed by the Senate on February 8th, 2017.

On Wednesday, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed as United States attorney general. This followed what the New York Times described as a particularly “bitter and racially charged” nomination battle, one marked most recently by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s use of an arcane rule on Tuesday to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren from reading a letter from the late Coretta Scott King. In the letter, dated 1986, King lambasted Sessions for using “the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens” on the Senate floor.

Sessions’ nomination proved one of the most contentious in modern American political history, and there’s good reason for that: The former ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee has a long and provocative record on civil rights issues. Thousands of activists and law professors have condemned Sessions’ nomination on the grounds that, as Quartz wrote, he’s “unable to enforce the country’s laws without prejudice.”

Just in case you forgot why the Senate’s been melting down for weeks over Sessions’ nomination, here’s a capsule summary, fromThe Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, of the former Alabama attorney general’s tumultuous time in state politics:

In his 1986 confirmation hearing [for a federal judgeship], witnesses testified that Sessions referred to a black attorney as “boy,” described the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive,” attacked the NAACP and ACLU as “un-American” for “forcing civil rights down the throats of people,” joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was ok until he found out they smoked marijuana, and referred to a white attorney who took on voting-rights cases as a “traitor to his race.” As Ryan J. Reilly reported, Sessions also faced allegations that he referred to a Democratic official in Alabama as a nigger.

This is just the most salacious stuff — and, beyond optics, the consequences for the nation could be severe. Sessions’ record on civil rights isn’t just regressive on the grounds of his rhetoric (although that plays a part; he was denied that federal judgeship in 1986 after all). His record also indicates his tenure as the country’s top law enforcement agent might yield a regime of force conducive to oppressing the most vulnerable populations. While Sessions’ ascension to the job of America’s top cop doesn’t mean he’ll be able to make laws as he once did in the Senate, he will have a tremendous amount of power in judging how laws are enforced and interpreted — interpretations that could wipe out the progress of the Obama administration.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Sessions was an early Donald Trump disciple: The new attorney general comes with a history of challenging personal liberties. Consider Sessions’ vote against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, or his support of constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, or his opposition to adding criminality based on someone’s sexual orientation to the legal definition of hate crimes. Consider also that, just a decade ago, Sessions was given a 20 percent rating by the American Civil Liberties Union, a 7 percent rating by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a 0 percent rating by the Human Rights Campaign.

Efforts to reform mandatory minimums, the spine of both the failed war on drugs and the explosion of the U.S. prison industrial complex, may suffer significantly under Sessions’ Department of Justice. Like his new boss, Sessions has long touted a “law-and-order” attitude toward sentencing and incarceration; most recently, he opposed a bipartisan effort to reduce mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes, claiming the legislation would send a message to state judiciaries that the U.S. government is “not interested in people serving sentences anymore.” While Barack Obama made strides to expand sentencing relief for mandatory minimums and symbolically use his clemency power to circumvent that policy, Sessions would likely roll back these gains in an effort to reinforce Trump’s tough-on-crime ideology.

To be fair, Sessions might be flexible on some policy issues: After all, Sessions co-sponsored the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that eliminated mandatory minimums for first-time crack cocaine offenders, per CNN. But it’s the racial undertones permeating his record in public service—Sessions was once accused of suppressing black votes in Alabama by leading efforts to prosecute African-American civil rights groups—that might make some people nervous.

The new attorney general also has a history of registering alarm over perceived Muslim terrorism threats, a fact that’s driven his harsh stance on immigration during his time in the Senate, from railing against sanctuary cities to blocking legislation to create paths to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Now, Sessions will have myriad avenues to exercise both his and Trump’s fears over Muslim immigrants, namely, as immigration lawyer David Leopold writes, by imposing his “radical, anti-immigrant ideology on decisions by the federal immigration courts.” While Americans have turned to the courts to push back against Trump’s travel ban in the weeks since the signing of his executive order, Sessions could reshape the very juridical logic that underpins the court system.