Law & the Courts

Jeff Sessions Will Be Just Fine on Civil Rights

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Bachman)
All evidence suggests Sessions would be a fair and impartial attorney general.

As word leaked this morning that Alabama senator Jeff Sessions was President-elect Trump’s pick for attorney general, the Left reacted with predictable anger, attacking Sessions’s record on civil rights. But as someone who once worked in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division — and did not support Trump or Hillary Clinton in this year’s campaign —I would fully support the senator’s nomination.

Senator Sessions is a principled conservative. He understands the law, and I have every confidence that he will enforce it as written. Of course, the “as written” part of that statement presents a problem, for example, to those who would transmogrify the plain language of statutes prohibiting sex discrimination into a right for biological men to enter women’s restrooms based on their “gender identity.” But it was unlikely that any nominee in a Republican administration would be the gymnast with respect to statutory interpretation that many on the left might wish.

What the civil-rights community should appreciate, however, is that Senator Sessions has been immersed in the issues they care about for decades. He has a deep knowledge of the relevant statutes and the often-muddled case law interpreting them, and he will bring that knowledge to the DOJ from Day One.

Having worked in the Civil rights Division on behalf of John Ashcroft, another legal expert loathed by the left, I suspect that an Attorney General Sessions would be similarly disposed to run the department as a principled legal conservative. And that should matter to liberals, because principled legal conservatives follow the law without regard for political consequences. Never in my time serving Attorney General Ashcroft was it ever suggested that Republican states, or even his home state of Missouri, be spared an enforcement action on political grounds. Nor were political allies spared prosecution if the law warranted it. I recall opening a “pattern and practice” police-misconduct case in Providence, where the Fraternal Order of Police, a strong supporter of President Bush, was the city officers’ union. The National FOP convention was scheduled to be in Providence months after our anticipated announcement of an investigation. I provided a heads-up to political leadership, who merely asked, “Is this something we need to do?” I said “yes,” and that was end of it.

#related#Compare that to Baltimore. Years before the Freddie Grey case, the Baltimore Sun chronicled a pattern of judicial findings and settlements in excessive-force cases. The article was so extensive that it could have been an internal DOJ “J-Memo.” But the mayor of Baltimore was also a leader of the Democratic National Committee. A “soft” approach of providing grants to the Baltimore Police Department, along with non-binding technical assistance, was taken. I of course don’t know what drove that decision, but it is hard to imagine that a city not led by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake would get the same treatment. Of course, the Freddie Grey case exploded the city a few years later. If you’re a liberal, it’s worth asking yourself: What good is an ideological ally who in practice protects his or her friends?

Senator Sessions could be a good attorney general for civil rights because he will be driven by the law. His interpretation of the law will not please everyone, but I predict it will be fairly applied without fear or favor. Clear cases will be prosecuted with vigor. Creative interpretations of the law may cease, but the meat-and-potatoes work of the division (intentional discrimination, police misconduct, disability law) will continue apace, conducted without impropriety or political favoritism.

That alone will be a breath of fresh air.

Robert N. Driscoll is the managing partner of McGlinchey Stafford’s Washington, D.C. office and the co-chair of its government-investigations practice. He previously served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

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