Federal Courts and Nominations

OP-ED: Sessions misrepresents ‘equal and impartial justice’

A quarter century after the 13 states ratified the U.S. Constitution, Thomas Jefferson succinctly captured the purpose of representative government in a letter to the editor of a treatise on political theory. “The most sacred of the duties of a government,” he wrote, is “to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”

This ideal became the guiding principle of the Department of Justice and helps explain why Sen. Jeff Sessions is unfit to be attorney general. His extensive record – at times defying fundamental protections written in the text and underscored by the history of the U.S. Constitution – offers little evidence that he can be “the People’s lawyer” and fairly execute the mission of the Department he is nominated to lead. The fact is Sessions’s views in critical areas run counter to the ideals expressed by Jefferson more than two centuries ago.

Next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on Sessions’ nomination to be the most powerful law enforcer in the land. If confirmed by the full Senate, he could threaten the liberties of vast numbers of Americans and roll back hard-won rights rather than advance the nation toward “equal and impartial justice” for everyone.

Sessions’ extreme views demonstrate a stubborn resistance to respecting the rights of all people regardless of income, complexion, gender, religion or any other status. Intentionally or not, he has turned a blind eye to the bedrock American credo of “liberty and justice for all” with respect to civil rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice, national security, and executive accountability to the rule of law.

A number of witnesses — including U.S. Senator Cory Booker, D-NJ, Congressional Black Caucus chairman Representative Cedric Richmond, D-LA, and civil rights icon Representative John Lewis, D-GA,— testified to Sessions’s inadequate record on civil, women’s, gay and lesbian, immigrant, and voting rights. Less attention has been paid to the burdens on criminal justice that his record imposes, particularly on communities of color, and his fluctuating views on executive accountability to the rule of law.

A few weeks ago, for example, the DOJ found that the Chicago Police Department routinely violated the civil rights of city residents through the use of excessive force, disproportionally affecting African-Americans and Latinos. Last year, DOJ found that the Baltimore Police Department engaged in a “pattern or practice” of unlawful stops, excessive force, and retaliation that disproportionally affected people of color. And in 2015, the Department concluded that the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department and municipal court system systematically “violate[d] the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments” of its citizens with “discriminatory intent.” Sessions, however, believes DOJ interference in local policing is an abuse of federal authority.

Sessions also scorns the Justice Department’s use of consent decrees, which have been effective at reforming police departments with histories of systemic discrimination, claiming they are “an end run around the democratic process.”

He mocked efforts to reform the criminal justice system; frequently cited a rise in crime to support his positions, though the crime rate has been declining for decades; and vocally opposed the bipartisan effort to end mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes.

During a 2015 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the seizing of property by law enforcement, often without convictions or even charges – known as “civil asset forfeiture” – Sessions made clear his disregard for due process. He argued that civil forfeiture, a critical issue to conservative opponents of Sessions’s nomination, “is not wrong,” especially since the program mostly takes property from people “who have done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”

Finally, Sessions has called into question his ability to stand independent of the President and judge presidential actions impartially. During the nomination hearing of Michael Mukasey to be attorney general under President George W. Bush, Sessions said a good attorney general “has got to say no to the President.” But Sessions’ silence in the face of President Donald Trump’s collision course with violating the constitution – most conspicuously Trump’s refusal to divest his business holdings and place them in a blind trust, as well as his call for a Muslim registry – is disturbing.

Sessions’s troubling record as an ardent Trump campaign supporter, U.S. Senator, and Alabama Attorney General, indicates a willingness to set the Constitution aside and rubber stamp the Administration’s agenda, regardless of the constitutionality of its proposals.

It is axiomatic that the attorney general must have a deep commitment to the principles at the Constitution’s core, a willingness to respect its values – regardless of his or her own policy preferences or those of the President – and a history of respecting substantive fundamental rights. Sessions fails each of these tests.

During the nomination hearing for Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Sessions said that “The Senate must never confirm an individual to [Attorney General] who will support and advance … scheme[s] that violate our Constitution and eviscerate established law and Congressional authority … We have a duty to this institution, and to the American people not to confirm someone who is not committed to those principles but rather who will continue to violate them.”

This is a worthy test for an attorney general. Sessions does not satisfy it.

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