“The ultimate responsibility of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice is to execute the laws passed by this Congress and to follow the Constitution in that process.”
Those are the words of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 11th. Sessions was nominated by President Trump to become the nation’s next Attorney General. Last week, after numerous stall tactics by Senate Democrats, Sessions’ nomination advanced out of the Judiciary Committee by a party-line vote. His nomination now goes to a vote by the full Senate, which is scheduled for later this week.
On paper, Sessions is one of the most qualified of all of Trump’s cabinet selections, but his nomination has been among the most controversial. Criticism of Sessions stems from accusations of racism (the same accusations that tanked his nomination to become a Federal Judge three decades ago) and fear that his law and order attitude and strict conservative worldview would threaten the legal marijuana industry, roll back progress with regard to police misconduct, and threaten civil rights.
I share the view that his potential actions as Attorney General might be cause for concern for those of us who wish to see the principles of federalism continue to play out in the marijuana policy arena. I also don’t pretend to see eye-to-eye with the Senator on issues of police misconduct. However, I firmly believe that legitimate policy disagreements should not plague a nomination. The test for whether or not a person should be confirmed as Attorney General should not be that you agree with the nominee on all of the issues. It should simply be that he or she will uphold the laws and the Constitution of the United States.
I can think of many members of the United States Senate whose views more closely align with mine than Jeff Sessions, but I am not sure I can name more than a couple who would be equally equipped as he to do the job of Attorney General. His devotion to the law as he sees it and his fidelity to the Constitution make him a rare and a qualified nominee. I understand what his confirmation could mean to causes I care about, but it is not the job of the Attorney General to ensure favorable outcomes. If Congress does not want Sessions to crackdown on marijuana or illegal immigration, they can, and should, change the law. Until then, Sessions has a duty to enforce the laws as written.
As for the accusations of racism, I find them to lack virtually any evidence or credibility. The only evidence provided to support this claim is testimony from Sessions 1986 Judiciary Committee hearing in which a couple of lawyers from the DOJ testified that he had made racially insensitive remarks. While that is certainly concerning, every remark that Senator Sessions is accused of making he either admitted to saying jokingly or claims was never said. Sessions has also been accused of not supporting civil rights because he believes the Voting Rights Act was too intrusive, but so did Justice Roberts in his majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder.
The most “damning” of the accusations were made by a lawyer named Thomas Figures (whose own credibility should probably be in question considering he was indicted in 1992 for bribing a witness). Figures, who passed in 2015, claimed that Sessions had once called him “boy” and a race traitor. Sessions denied ever saying either of those things, and no one else has ever stepped forward to corroborate Figures’ story.
Figures also claimed that during an investigation into a murder by members of the Ku Klux Klan (an investigation that led to a death sentence for Klansman Henry Hays) after finding out that some of the suspects were too stoned to remember much, Sessions made a comment about how he liked the Klan until he learned its members smoked pot. Sessions admits to making the remark but has repeatedly testified to the fact that it was a joke. While crude, Sessions has stated that it was intended to make light of a stressful situation and poke fun at the least of the Klan’s sins. He likened it to saying that you disliked Pol Pot because he wore alligator shoes. This seems to be exactly how most of his colleagues at the time interpreted the statement. One DOJ lawyer who testified in 1986 told the committee that it was common for prosecutors working on grim cases to occasionally “resort to operating room humor and that is what I considered it to be.” Another of Sessions colleagues stated that “it never occurred to me that there was any seriousness to it.”
If the best that his opponents can come up with is testimony from a questionably credible former colleague, a joke, and his agreement with the majority of the Supreme Court on the Voting Rights Act, I would say that Senator Sessions has more going for him than most who have spent 30+ years in public service.
For virtually my entire life Senator Sessions has served as the Attorney General of my State or as our United States Senator. Two summers ago I had the opportunity to intern in his D.C. office. In all my experience with him, I have been repeatedly surprised at how genuine of a person he is. He is the kind of guy who is always making himself late to meetings because he enjoys engaging with people so much that he loses track of time. At public events, Senator Sessions is often seen standing around talking to constituents long after all of the other politicians have gone home. And it is not just those of us on the right who notice. I have talked about him with many professors, friends, and Alabamians who are self-described liberals. Never have I heard a bad thing said about Jeff Sessions as a person by someone who has spent time with him.
Unfortunately, no amount of truth or praise can shield Senator Sessions from the partisan smear job he has been subjected to. If it is pointed out that he has a diverse Senate staff or that he personally hired the first Black Republican Chief Counsel to the Judiciary Committee, opponents simply call them token hires. When Jeff Sessions appeared with his family, including his biracial grandchildren, at his confirmation hearings, pundits insinuated that they were props. Granted, hiring black staff members or having biracial grandchildren does not in and of itself make one not a racist, but they are hardly the calling cards of the Klan sympathizer the left has made him out to be. The opposition to Jeff Sessions has never been about facts, real concern of racial prejudice, or even his qualifications. It has always been about partisanship. Cries of racism are just the left using its most effective tool.
I will certainly continue to have my disagreements with Senator Sessions, but he is more than qualified to serve as Attorney General. I believe he will uphold the Constitution and champion the rule of law, and for that, the Senate should confirm him.