Here’s what happens when Sessions is in the saddle at Justice
Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 1/26/2017, 6 a.m.
In 2008, the Alabama Policy Institute published a position paper on what it considered a dangerous trend by the courts and attorneys general. The trend was the court’s approval of consent decrees. For decades, consent decrees have been major weapons wielded by the Justice Department to go after cities, states and corporations that engage in blatant abusive practices on everything from consumer fraud to police abuse.
The Institute compiled a lengthy position paper that railed against the use of consent decrees to right wrongs. It demanded that attorneys general and state legislatures act to limit, if not outright do away with, the use of consent decrees. The Institute asked the one attorney general whom it was certain would back its conclusions to the hilt to write the introduction. U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions got right to the point in the very first two sentences, “One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees. They have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end around the democratic process.” He boasted that as Alabama attorney general he rushed to the courts to scrap a consent decree approved by his predecessor. He succeeded.
GOP senators, conservative bloggers and legal shills have launched a charm campaign to paint Sessions as a guy who has been misunderstood. His racially demeaning quotes supposedly were taken out of context and, as Alabama attorney general and later, U.S. attorney, he urged vigorous prosecution of a Klan murderer, backed school desegregation efforts, filed lawsuits against voting rights discrimination and backed the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.
But that’s simply PR puffery and window dressing to mask the extreme peril Sessions poses once in the saddle at the Justice Department. There were glaring signs that he would not play by the legal and public interest book as Attorney General. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he claimed that he didn’t see any criminal act in Trump’s boast that he grabbed women in their private parts. This struck to the heart of whether Sessions’ Justice Department would deal impartially with vital gender enforcement issues such as support for marriage equality, pay equity for women and domestic violence and sexual assault.
He also didn’t object when Trump said he’d prosecute Hillary Clinton and investigate Black Lives Matter. Then there’s the question of just what types of crimes Sessions would prosecute. There are an estimated 4,000 federal criminal statutes on the books that could be subject to prosecution. It’s up to the Attorney General to decide which crimes to make a priority for prosecution. Holder and Lynch put the department spotlight on immigration rights, voting rights, police abuse, drug and criminal justice system reform and doing away with the use of private prisons for profit. Sessions chomps to get rid of voting rights enforcement, calling the Voting Rights Act “intrusive.”
As for private prisons, under former Attorney General Eric Holder, the Bureau of Prisons issued a memo that it would phase out the use of private, for-profit prisons, citing grave problems in safety, security and oversight. During the campaign, Trump disagreed, calling for even more privatizations and private prisons. Geo Group is one of the largest private prison corporations. Four months after Trump pitched private prisons, in October 2016, the GEO Group saw the pro-privatization handwriting on the wall and hired two former Sessions aides to lobby in favor of outsourcing federal corrections to private contractors.
There’s still another sign of the shape of things to come at the Justice Department under Sessions. In 1997, when he was Alabama’s attorney general, a state judge went after him, calling him and his office an example of perpetrating the “worst case” of prosecutorial misconduct he had seen. The case that got the judge up in arms against Sessions was a prosecution of a trucking company for allegedly submitting fraudulent billings and taking kickbacks. Specifically, the charge was that his office failed to turn over evidence, gave false testimony and abused the defendant’s rights. Subsequent rulings and an ethics commission investigation found no wrongdoing on Sessions’ part. However, there was a taint with the public charge that Sessions, as the judge noted, was willing to “disregard the lawful duties of the Attorney General.”
There’s absolutely no hint, based on his Senate voting record, public statements and actions, and ties to hard right-wing groups, that once in the Justice Department saddle he will suddenly be a fair and impartial enforcer of civil rights laws, criminal justice reforms, and go after corporate abuses. The evidence is just the opposite.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.