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Sen. Jeff Sessions wants to steer our criminal justice system in another direction—but critics worry he will lead us back into the Dark Ages.
Sessions, a 70-year-old Republican lawmaker from Alabama, is President-elect Donald Trump‘s pick to head the U.S. Department of Justice as attorney general. Sessions will sit before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a series of confirmation hearings. A sitting senator whose congenial attitude has earned him fans in the Senate, Sessions’ confirmation seems imminent despite vehement opposition by civil rights groups and eager embrace by white nationalists.
As head of the nation’s chief law enforcement and criminal justice agency, Sessions will be the person responsible for carrying out the Trump campaign’s promise to bring back “law and order” to the nation.
Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about the man who’s expected to soon become the top law enforcement official in the United States.
Sessions, in a nutshell
A staunch conservative who served as Alabama’s attorney general in 1994 before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1996, Sessions as attorney general will be pro-police and tough on crime. His decisions will impact the future of movements against police brutality like Black Lives Matter, the use of electronic surveillance by law enforcement agencies, and even recreational marijuana.
While the Justice Department under President Barack Obama focused on police and criminal justice reform and tackled systemic racial bias, Trump’s Justice Department is a likely return to a more punitive era. Trump’s support on the campaign trail of “stop-and-frisk,” a policing strategy that disproportionately impacted blacks and Hispanics, and for mass incarceration of undocumented immigrants raised alarm bells among civil rights groups but meshes with Sessions’ philosophies toward law enforcement.
As such, Sessions’ nomination is opposed by 150 different civil rights and progressive groups due to fears that a Justice Department under his control will unfairly target blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, LGBTQ Americans, and women.
“Senator Sessions has a 30-year record of racial insensitivity, bias against immigrants, disregard for the rule of law, and hostility to the protection of civil rights that makes him unfit to serve as the Attorney General of the United States,” read a letter the groups sent to U.S. senators in December.
Sessions’ voting records as senator show he opposed a pathway to legal immigration and supported torture and NSA wiretapping during the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. He opposed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2012 due to an amendment that extended the law’s protections to LGBTQ people. Sessions also told reporters in October he wouldn’t characterize the behavior described by Trump in the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood video—in which the president-elect brags about physically grabbing women by their genitals—as sexual assault.
Racism and Voting Rights
In a bit of irony, the Senate Judiciary Committee—the very same panel that will consider Sessions’ attorney general nomination this week—rejected President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Sessions to be a federal judge back in 1986. Then-Sen. Joe Biden, who headed the committee at the time, warned against accepting Sessions’ nomination and referenced racially insensitive comments Sessions made toward a black subordinate.
While serving as a U.S. attorney in Mobile, Alabama, Sessions likened the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to communist groups and allegedly said they tried to force civil rights “down the throats of people.” Sessions also said he considered the Ku Klux Klan to be “ OK until I found out they smoked pot.” He warned a black subordinate, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Fields, to be “careful” about what he said to “white folks.”
Sessions later told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his comments were taken out of context or meant as jokes. He adamantly denies any accusations of racism or racial insensitivity.
As U.S. attorney in the mid-80s, Sessions chose to prosecute elderly black Americans in Alabama’s Black Belt region—some of whom had marched in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965—of voter fraud. Sessions ordered an FBI agent to stake out a post office and retrieve absentee ballots sent by a group of black voter outreach activists in order to check whether any were fraudulent. Sessions fought the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center in a case that involved 27 disputed ballots and would have resulted in decades of prison for the activists involved.
The New York Times reported this month:
“In October , as part of the investigation and before the general election, Sessions’s office convened a federal grand jury more than 160 miles south, in Mobile, where the jury pool included more white people. Surrounded by FBI agents and police with guns, about 20 black voters from Perry County, many older and some frail, were taken by bus to Mobile, where they were fingerprinted, photographed and questioned by the grand jury about their votes.”
The activists were eventually acquitted of all charges, but efforts to suppress and stifle the black vote in Alabama were just beginning. As Slate noted, Alabama—which passed a law in 2011 requiring driver’s licenses in order to vote—shut down 31 DMVs in 2015 due to budget cuts. Not a single Alabama county where the population is more than 75 percent non-white has its own DMV. Furthermore, DMVs were shuttered in the five counties that voted for Obama in 2012.
Such factors likely influenced voter turnout in Alabama’s Black Belt counties in the 2016 presidential election, which was only a fraction of what it was in 2008.
Surveillance and Privacy
Sessions is a staunch advocate of the Patriot Act-era of domestic surveillance, including roving wiretaps, searches of business records, and surveillance of suspected “lone wolf terrorists”not linked to terrorist groups.
“Sessions has made it clear that he is incredibly hostile to Silicon Valley, the internet in general, and the First and Fourth Amendments,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Nate Cardozo told the Daily Dot in a phone interview back in December. “He will be a big-government, anti-liberty attorney general.”
Sessions has been a staunch advocate of the Patriot Act since the law’s implementation in 2002 and opposed any efforts to curtail or reform the law, including after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents to journalists in 2013. Sessions was a vocal critic of the USA Freedom Act, a bill inspired by Snowden’s leaks, which Congress passed in 2015. Sessions said the law, which eliminated the NSA’s bulk-data-collection program, would significantly weaken the NSA’s ability to investigate terrorists.
As attorney general, Sessions will be responsible for the Justice Department’s implementation of the Patriot Act as it applies to the intelligence community.
Sessions’ track record as senator indicates that he believes that ruling in the interest of national security trumps any potential assault on a person’s civil liberties. In fact, Sessions has argued that such a belief is the merely the status quo.
In 2004, Sessions pushed for a change to the Patriot Act that would prevent companies from telling customers that the federal government requested access to their records through a National Security Letter. Sessions argued that this would be a nominal change from current law. He explained in a statement on the Senate floor:
“You are not going into their house or their automobile or their desk in order to obtain their personal records. These are records being held at a bank, records to which everybody in the bank has access. These records are being held at a telephone company, and show the telephone toll records that you get on your monthly statements. They are not in your control. They are in the telephone company’s control. What used to happen was people would subpoena the toll records and ask the telephone company not to tell the customer, if it was a sensitive investigation. That has been done by every district attorney in America. They issue thousands of these subpoenas. Tens of thousands, I suggest, literally every month are issued for bank records, toll records every day. You have some expectation of privacy, but you don’t have an expectation that those records will be secretly maintained by the bank or the telephone company when they are requested by a law enforcement officer for a law enforcement purpose, and relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. That is the law, and it has been that way forever.”
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which allows the U.S. government to listen in on the phone conversations and digital communications of U.S. citizens abroad, is scheduled to expire later in 2017. Sessions in 2008 applauded the ability of the government to intercept cellphone calls under the law.
“If they are calling into the United States to set up a terrorist organization to carry out a plot, then that is the kind of call you want to intercept, for heaven’s sake. I just don’t think we have a big issue,” said Sessions during Senate committee hearing.
As the Verge notes, Sessions as attorney general would have the power to take companies to task for not meeting the demands of law enforcement.
“We need to be prepared for a full frontal assault on the right to encrypt in 2017,” Open Technology Institute Director Kevin Bankston told the Verge. “It’s time for folks who care about cybersecurity, privacy, innovation, and the tech economy to start digging trenches.”
Sessions isn’t just a notorious hardliner on immigration—he is the notorious hardliner on immigration.
He has enthusiastically supported a southern border wall—which Trump has endlessly promised to build, at Mexico’s expense—and increasing the ranks of the Border Patrol throughout his career in the Senate. Sessions called a 2006 immigration reform bill that would include guest worker visas “the worst piece of legislation to come before the Senate since I’ve been here.” He persuaded colleagues in 2006 to support building 370 miles of fence and 500 miles of vehicular barriers along the U.S.–Mexico border. And he is against pathways to legal immigration, even for children born in the U.S.
It’s a curiously tough stance on illegal immigration and border security for an Alabama senator, given that undocumented workers only make up 2.5 percent of the state’s population and that the state only shares a border with the Gulf of Mexico. Sessions has proven to be even more conservative on the issue than former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), who are both from states that border Mexico and have considerably larger populations of undocumented workers and families than Sessions’ home state of Alabama.
Sessions’ conservative stance on immigration has very little to do with law enforcement or crimes on the border. In fact, Sessions strongly opposes immigration—both legal and illegal. After leading a gang of senators to help block the Senate’s 2013 immigration reform bill, Sessions distributed a 27-page handbook to House Republicans to help them defeat their version of the legislation.
The handbook reveals why Sessions is no fan of immigration. He believes that a rise in legal immigration in the 90s has exhausted our country’s resources and lead to unemployment.
“Contrary to popular misconception, the largest source of unskilled immigration to the United States is legal immigration. Each year, the U.S. admits 1 million largely lesser-skilled permanent immigrants to the United States with green cards. Individuals who receive green cards receive lifetime work authorization, virtually all federal benefits, access to most federal welfare, and the ability to apply for citizenship and vote. From 2000 through 2014—when 14 million new permanent legal immigrants were admitted to the U.S. in addition to the illegal immigration flow—all net employment gains went to immigrant workers. This trend occurred even as the population of U.S.-born workers climbed by 16.4 million.18 The total number of working-age U.S.-born Americans without jobs now stands at 58 million.”
The surprise primary loss of then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia—who supported immigration reform—to Sessions ally with Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va) in 2014 lead to a huge leadership reshuffling among House Republicans. Sessions and Brat are close friends and lead a “Drain the Swamp” tour in Richmond, Virginia, in November on behalf of Trump. They co-authored an October 2015 op-ed in Roll Call entitled, “Memo to the GOP: Curb Immigration or Quit Commentary.”
The unseating of Cantor set off a ripple effect that can still be felt today in the Republican Party. It terrified Republicans in Congress from pursuing any meaningful immigration reform in the future. It also led to Republican presidential contenders that were advocates of comprehensive immigration reform—like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush—performing a drastic 180 on the campaign trail.
Sessions’ policy staffers advised Trump on immigration reform on the campaign trail and are playing a key role in the transition, according to documents obtained by the Times.
As one Democratic staffer told Mother Jones, Sessions’ hatred of immigrants is all-encompassing: The entirety of it is: Albert Einstein or Osama bin Laden are just a digit, number one, and they’re all equally bad, basically, from the standpoint of how they deal with immigration.”
Amrita Khalid is a technology and politics reporter who specializes in breaking down complex issues into practical, useful terms. A former contributor to CQ, a Congressional news and analysis site, she's currently a master's candidate in international relations at the University of Leeds.