Donald Trump has appointed Alabama senator Jeff Sessions to be the next attorney general. It’s a sensible pick that promises to restore some integrity to a Justice Department tarnished by eight years of Obama-administration lawlessness.
Sessions, who is currently serving his fourth term as Alabama’s junior senator, is best known for his hawkish immigration stance; he has been an implacable opponent of attempts, by both parties, to force through Congress some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants residing in the U.S. He found common cause early on with Donald Trump, who opened his presidential campaign in 2015 by attacking the bipartisan immigration consensus that led to immigration-reform efforts such as the 2013 “Gang of Eight” bill. Sessions was one of the first prominent legislators to back Trump and became a key counselor, helping him create a practical immigration platform and chairing his national-security advisory committee.
Sessions’s selection as attorney general is fitting for someone whose career in public service has been dedicated to law and order. Prior to his election to the Senate in 1996, Sessions was Alabama’s attorney general. From 1981 to 1993, he was U.S. attorney for Alabama’s southern district. During his time on Capitol Hill, he has served on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The latter is, as Sessions himself as observed, ironic. In 1986, Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions for a federal judgeship in the Southern District of Alabama. However, despite approval from then–Alabama senator Jeremiah Denton and the American Bar Association, Sessions failed to make it past the Senate Judiciary Committee. Some of Sessions’s subordinates testified that he had made “racist” statements, and he was interrogated about comments describing the NAACP and ACLU as “Communist-inspired” and “un-American.” Sessions admitted that he was “often loose with my tongue” but denied all accusations of bigotry. The committee also questioned his position on the Voting Rights Act, which he acknowledged calling “a piece of intrusive legislation.”
Naturally, Democrats have leapt upon these 30-year-old accusations to protest Sessions’s nomination. However, Sessions’s record should put the lie to those attacks. As a U.S. attorney, Sessions helped to desegregate Alabama schools. He also led the prosecution of Henry Francis Hays, the head of the state’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan, charged with the murder of a black teenager, Michael Donald. Hays was ultimately executed, and a $7 million civil judgment against the Klan helped crush the group in Alabama. Sessions’s judgment about the Voting Rights Act, meanwhile, has been mispresented. Sessions voted with every single Senate Republican to reauthorize the VRA in 2006. Yet he has been skeptical about the need for its most aggressive provisions in the early 21st century. He is, in that way, of one mind with a majority of the Supreme Court, which in 2013 struck down part of the law, as a result of a case that originated in Sessions’s home state.
While Democrats point to a handful of decades-old charges, Sessions has earned many more plaudits — of much more recent vintage. In 2009, Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, recently switched to the Democratic party, admitted, “My vote against candidate Sessions for the federal court was a mistake.” The senator, who as a Republican in the 1980s had crossed party lines to oppose Sessions, said that he had discovered, working with him in the Senate, that Sessions “is egalitarian.” FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican who worked for Sessions on the Senate Judiciary Committee, greeted news of his nomination with a statement taking aim at Sessions’s character assassins: Sessions, he wrote, is “honorable, thoughtful, devoted to the Constitution, and deeply committed to equal justice and the rule of law.”
While Democrats point to a handful of decades-old charges, Sessions has earned many more plaudits — of much more recent vintage.
The Department of Justice is in dire need of precisely those qualities. Under Eric Holder — the only attorney general in American history to be held in contempt by the House of Representatives — and then Loretta Lynch, the Obama-era DOJ has exhibited a special contempt for the rule of law. Whether it was refusing to prosecute the New Black Panther Party for voter intimidation, or operating harebrained “gunwalking” schemes south of the border, or hamstringing the ability of police to keep order in their cities through its activist civil-rights division, or hosting a tarmac pow-wow with a key witness in an ongoing FBI investigation, Barack Obama’s attorneys general mainly have spent their time participating in unconstitutional or ethically dubious activities, rather than advising the president against them.
Jeff Sessions has an opportunity to restore the integrity of a department that has deservedly fallen into disrepute, and a foundational American idea: that no one is above the law. With due diligence, he might succeed in leading a Justice Department that actually dispenses a bit of justice.