In His First Year As Attorney General, Sessions Transforms Justice In Key Ways

Feb 9, 2018
Originally published on February 9, 2018 7:28 am

One year ago this week, Jeff Sessions stood beaming in the Oval Office as he awaited his swearing-in as the 84th attorney general of the United States.

On that day last February, President Trump signed executive orders on violent crime and gangs, pledging that a "new era of justice begins." And, in the year that followed, Sessions has managed to transform the Justice Department, particularly in the areas of civil rights, immigration and drugs.

Those policy initiatives have advanced despite an increasingly turbulent relationship among the president, Sessions and the institution he leads. Trump disavowed his attorney general over his recusal last year in the Russia investigation, and he has repeatedly attacked the Justice Department and the FBI as inept or politically motivated.

For his part, Sessions has tried to have it both ways. He has offered a few words of praise for his deputies at Justice, but told an audience this week that he knows there are sharp critics of his department.

"I'll be the first to acknowledge that we still have work to do," he said. "Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant. We will not ignore these problems or hide our heads in the sand."

Civil rights

A few weeks into the job, Sessions rescinded guidance for schools that was designed to protect transgender students in bathrooms and locker rooms. Later, the Justice Department filed legal briefs arguing that a landmark 1964 civil rights law did not bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sided with a cake shop owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Sessions switched positions in a major voting rights case in Texas, backing away from an argument that state lawmakers had intended to discriminate on the basis of race in their voter ID bill.

And he ordered a review of the Justice Department's approach to consent decrees with errant police departments, ultimately determining that his civil rights unit will turn away from investigating patterns of excessive force and racial profiling by local law enforcement and instead focus resources on prosecuting individual police officers who break the law.

Last fall, the attorney general also put an end to a collaborative reform process some police departments used to identify problems and get advice about how to fix them. In California, the state attorney general recently agreed to monitor how the San Francisco Police Department was ushering in changes recommended through the old DOJ program, since the federal government had backed off.

Immigration

As a senator, Sessions became the leading voice in Congress for restrictive immigration policies. And in his post as the top federal law enforcement officer, Sessions has continued to advance those goals, often with the immense power of the executive branch behind him.

The attorney general has issued new priorities for immigration judges in an effort to reduce heavy backlogs in those courts. He has promised to hire dozens more judges and monitor their efficiency through what he describes as "benchmarks." He has begun to crack down on immigrants who become naturalized citizens through fraud, moving to strip those people of their citizenship in court. And he has threatened to withhold U.S. grant dollars from "sanctuary city" jurisdictions that don't share information with federal immigration authorities.

Under Sessions' watch, the Justice Department also determined that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was "an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch" and could not be defended in a court challenge by Texas and other states.

Sentencing and drug policy

Early in his tenure, Sessions revoked an Obama-era memo that directed federal prosecutors to use discretion in making decisions about charges in drug cases. In its place, the attorney general ordered U.S. attorneys to charge the most serious, readily provable offense — a policy that could lead to more and longer prison terms for drug criminals.

Sessions also reversed course and announced that the Justice Department will continue to make use of private prison facilities, rather than phase out those contracts.

Last month, Sessions withdrew a memo that set priorities for prosecutors in states where marijuana had been legalized for recreational or medical purposes. Long a foe of marijuana usage, the attorney general pointed out that the drug remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act. His decision to get rid of the Obama memo, without issuing his own priorities, has created some confusion about whether the law will be enforced differently in different states.

Sessions explained himself at an event this week honoring former President Ronald Reagan and the people who worked for him. "We don't think illegal drug use is 'recreation,' " the attorney general said. "Lax enforcement, permissive rhetoric and the media have undermined the essential need to say no to drug use — don't start."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One year ago today, President Trump promised that a new era was beginning at the Justice Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It is with great pride - very great pride - that I say these words to you right now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: In a year, Sessions has transformed the institution's approach to civil rights and immigration, all while an investigation continues into Russia's role in the 2016 election. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has covered the whole year. She's on the line.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How different does the department feel to you when you walk through the halls or get people on the phone?

JOHNSON: It does feel different. Of course, the department has had some morale problems, in part because President Trump has been attacking both the Justice Department and the FBI for many, many months as a laughingstock and possibly politically biased. Also, Steve, there are at least six major jobs requiring Senate confirmation still open at the Justice Department one year in - more than one year in. And there's not a quick sense that those jobs are going to be filled.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned the president's attacks on his own Justice Department. Let's focus on Jeff Sessions here. At his confirmation hearing, he assured senators he would be independent - he would make independent judgments. He later then did, over the president's objections, recuse himself from the Russia investigation - said he shouldn't be making decisions about it. But what about more recently?

JOHNSON: You know, the first words out of his mouth at his confirmation hearing - Jeff Sessions - were that he would be independent of the president. He's actually tried to have it a bit both ways, especially when it comes to criticism of the people inside his department. Sessions has offered some words of praise for his deputies, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But he also throws critics like the president a bone, saying that he's aware there are sharp criticisms of the department; sunlight is the best disinfectant; and he's not going to ignore problems or bury his hand in the sand when he encounters them.

INSKEEP: Just to understand this - I mean, the president appoints the attorney general. The president is the boss. But is the job such that the attorney general should always be taking the president's orders?

JOHNSON: Well, in matters of policy, the president has a big say. In matters of law enforcement, the practice since Watergate is that the president should have no say. And that's the bright line.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's talk about policy as well - policy in law enforcement here. Jeff Sessions has made a number of announcements. He's got clear priorities. And I'm thinking of one in particular - the federal approach to marijuana, which has been legalized in many states but is, of course, illegal at the federal level. Sessions changed the guidance for federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials. But we were told at the time it was not clear how much would actually change in terms of prosecutions on the ground. Can you think of an issue, Carrie Johnson, in which Jeff Sessions' different approach has actually resulted in something different on the ground?

JOHNSON: Very much so. Attorney General Sessions, in the Senate, had very strong feelings about immigration. And he's already had a major impact on immigration policy. He set benchmarks for immigration judges, trying to get them to move cases along faster. He's moving to strip people of citizenship if they lied during the vetting process. And of course his Justice Department determined that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was unconstitutional and could not be defended in court, which is part of the reason we're in the situation we're in now with respect...

INSKEEP: Oh. That was the justification for President Trump saying he would end it in March...

JOHNSON: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Unless Congress were to intervene in some way. And that's the thing that's still being debated.

JOHNSON: That's right.

INSKEEP: And he has, you're saying, caused stricter enforcement or stricter punishments, if that's precisely the word - stricter outcomes for people who are found to be in the country illegally.

JOHNSON: Yeah. And there's another big area where he's done a lot, which is with respect to civil rights, particularly police investigations - only charging individual officers, not investigating entire police departments anymore.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Johnson - always a pleasure. Thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.