Sessions’ priorities: a look into his initial actions as attorney general

After a contentious confirmation hearing, Jeff Sessions is the new Attorney General and the rest of the country is poised to see if he performs his new role consistent with his conservative record.

“He is, I believe, a disgrace to the justice department and he should withdraw his nomination and withdraw from the Justice Department… I will cast my nomination against the vote of Sen. Sessions.”  Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced after making these statements on the Senate floor during the confirmation hearing of newly appointed Attorney General, Jeff Sessions.  Senator Warren referenced comments made during Sessions’ prior confirmation hearing as a federal district judge for Alabama.

At that hearing, Senator Ted Kennedy opposed Sessions nomination and a letter from Loretta Scott King, read by Senator Warren which opposed Sessions’ nomination due to his record and alleged racist statements that had been overheard by former colleagues.  Sessions’ conservative record and past-alleged statements has divided Congress as to whether he is the best suited to perform the position of Attorney General.  Despite the division, Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General and he has started discussing how he will perform the role.  Sessions statements detail how his priorities are strengthening ties with the police and implementing a more stringent immigration policy.

Jeff Sessions was born and raised in Alabama.  After receiving his law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law, he entered United States Attorney’s office for the Southern District of Alabama as well as served in the U.S. Army Reserves.  Sessions was appointed to be the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Alabama by President Reagan in 1981 and nominated by President Reagan to be the Federal District judge in 1986.  His confirmation hearing was controversial, as it had come to light that he made disparaging comments involving the KKK, the NAACP, and towards subordinates.  The judiciary committee rejected his nomination in a 10-8 vote, which at that time had only been the second nomination to ever be rejected in the previous forty-eight years.  In 1994, Sessions was elected as Attorney General for Alabama.  In 1996, he was elected Senator of the United States where he has served until his current position.

His record as a senator has served as a lightning rod for criticism. 

As Attorney General, Sessions intends to rebuild the support for police and review some of the accountability policies implemented during President Obama’s administration.  During the Obama administration, the federal government investigated numerous local police departments for potential abuses.  Often times, these investigations would end in “consent decrees” or a deal where local agencies agree to reform their policies and practices after a plaintiff has brought an action.  Sessions has opposed this practice reasoning that consent agreements are too expansive and “constitute an end run around the democratic process.”  In his opinion, consent decrees are legislation given by judges and are an unconstitutional vehicle for implementing agency reform.  In addition, consent decrees have tended to limit police practices which he deems appropriate and constitutional.  Sessions’ opposition to consent decrees and other measures conducted during the Obama administration has alarmed many who view Session’s decisions as a step backward that will be an impediment to improving civil rights.

While Sessions seems well respected by many, his record on key civil rights issues and alleged racist comments has placed his character into controversy.  Some of these statements include that he thought the KKK was okay until he found out that they smoked marijuana.  Another controversial statement of Sessions was that he routinely referred to an African-American subordinate at the state’s office as “boy.”  He has praised legislation that led to voting restrictions, opposed immigration reform, opposed LGBT protections, and opposed women’s rights.  His record as a senator has served as a lightning rod for criticism.

The Trump administration has tried to combat this image by portraying Sessions as an advocate for civil rights.  A report by Politico detailed how the administration had coordinated talking points for the congressmen who would support Sessions at the confirmation hearing.  Some of the talking points included mentioning that Sessions had an undeniable respect for the law, a strong civil rights record, voted to extend the civil rights act, oversaw desegregation cases, and voted to confirm former attorney general, Eric Holder.  Since these talking points have gone public, many have attacked their credibility.  The Atlantic has found that his involvement with these civil rights efforts was minimal and that others have exaggerated his exploits.  Regardless of the past, Sessions actions will have to carefully balance the interests of civil rights and law enforcement policies.

In addition to his comments regarding law enforcement and civil rights, Sessions’ record as well as his statements made at the confirmation reflect that he will strictly enforce border laws and oppose immigration reform.   As a senator, Sessions was a staunch opponent of immigration reform.  His reasoning was largely based on the premise that a generous immigration policy hurts the U.S.-born workforce and increases crime.  This was the same sentiment that fueled President Trump’s campaign.

Sessions has also been rumored to have been consulted during the drafting of Trump’s most recent controversial measure termed, “the Muslim ban.”  Sessions openly voiced support for Trump’s campaign proposals for Muslim registries and bans, however; recently his tone has softened towards the issue.  Sessions support is likely softer due to the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the ban likely violated constitutional guarantees of due process.  Despite the ruling, Sessions will likely engage in aggressive efforts to reduce illegal immigration.

It seems unlikely that Sessions would implement a policy which counters the nationwide trend of legalization or marijuana.

Another issue that Sessions briefly addressed was his enforcement policy regarding marijuana.  Sessions made it clear that he is opposed to the legalization of marijuana.  He has made comments such as, “good people do not smoke marijuana” as well as that it is not the job of the attorney general to decide which laws to enforce but instead enforce the laws effectively as possible.  Over the course of President Obama’s administration, Attorney General’s Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch executed a policy whereby the federal government did not engage in marijuana enforcement inside states that had legalized the use of the drug.

As a senator, Sessions was critical of this practice.  Sessions could reverse the enforcement policy of the Attorney General’s office and pursue criminal charges for marijuana distribution in states that have legalized the drug recreationally.  An interesting twist to the whole situation is that Trump ran on a platform that praised state’s rights and federal enforcement of marijuana laws would run contradictory to Trump’s policy platform.  A crackdown on legalized weed could undermine the administration.

Another element to be considered in whether Sessions will enforce the federal restrictions on marijuana is the budget of the Attorney General’s office.  Sessions is notoriously known around capital hill as a budget hawk.  Sessions has stated that marijuana enforcement is a burden on the Attorney General’s office budget and that they will be considered in forming policy.  Given the budgetary constraints, the states rights platform, and the expansive nature of the marijuana industry, it seems unlikely that Sessions would implement a policy which counters the nationwide trend toward the legalization or marijuana.

It may still be too early to identify with particularity what Sessions priorities are as Attorney General.  However, if his record and statements at the confirmation hearing serve as an indicator, it seems that empowering the police while preserving civil rights as well as aggressively enforcing border laws are his top priorities as Attorney General.

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About Johnny Hutchens, Senior Staff Writer Emeritus (19 Articles)
Johnny Hutchens is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. He is originally from Charlotte and graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. The summer following his first year, he interned as a research assistant for Professor Collins in the Legal Research and Writing department at Campbell.
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