Justice set for revolution under Sessions

Justice set for revolution under Sessions
© Getty

Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat House passes concealed carry gun bill Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week MORE (R-Ala.) has emerged as perhaps the most polarizing of President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s Cabinet selections, with attention to his nomination for attorney general reaching a fever pitch this week that will only continue to grow.

Some liberal and civil rights groups have been working furiously to halt his nomination, claiming that as attorney general Sessions will seek to disenfranchise minority voters, strip the LGBT community of protections won during the Obama years, deport Dreamers and fill prisons with low-level drug offenders. 

Sessions’s opponents also point to alleged, decades-old racist remarks, denied by Sessions, which cost him a federal judgeship in 1986.

Conservatives are furious over the allegations, which they see as scaremongering designed to smear Sessions as a racist and a bigot.

Sessions will sit for his confirmation hearing Wednesday. Despite opposition, he’s expected to attain the majority he needs from his Senate colleagues to become the next head of the Justice Department.

As attorney general, Sessions would have sweeping authority over the nation’s top law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The attorney general also oversees the Office of Solicitor General, which determines the cases that ultimately make it to the Supreme Court, and the Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the president on what executive actions can be taken without Congressional approval.

That means the agenda of every Justice Department is decided by which laws the attorney general chooses to prioritize. 

President Obama’s attorneys general, Eric HolderEric H. HolderFBI director defends agency after Trump attacks: It's an 'honor to represent you' FBI agents fire back at Trump: Saying we're not dedicated is 'simply false' Holder hits back at Trump: The FBI’s reputation is not in 'tatters' MORE and Loretta Lynch, focused on police use-of-force, particularly against minorities, along with criminal justice reform, granting clemency for low-level drug offenders, ratcheting back the war on drugs and strengthening protections for LGBT Americans.

A Sessions Justice Department is likely to look very different.

Here are five ways that Sessions could reshape the agency, based on interviews with those who have known him for decades — former Attorney General Bill Barr, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, Trump adviser Ken Blackwell and Concerned Women for America president Penny Nance.

Criminal justice reform

Liberals have attacked Sessions as being eager to flood the prisons with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

It’s true that Sessions prides himself as a traditional law-and-order-style enforcer and opposes the legalization of marijuana.

But Sessions’s backers point to his sponsorship of prison reform bills, including the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and legislation aimed at reducing the sentencing discrepancy between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, a loophole that has disproportionately imprisoned black men for longer periods of time than white offenders guilty of the same crime.

Nance, the president of the conservative Concerned Women for America, worked with Sessions on the prison rape bill when she was with Prison Fellowship Ministries. She says Sessions supports “restorative justice” — a focus on rehabilitation and reconnecting the offender with the community, instead of jail time.

Sessions also supports drug courts for alternative sentencing arrangements in lieu of criminal civilian courts mandating jail sentences for nonviolent offenders, according to Nance.

Those close to Sessions say that exploring creative alternatives to imprisonment for low-level offenders will continue to be a priority for him as attorney general.

Immigration enforcement

As attorney general, Sessions will play a key role in fulfilling Trump’s campaign promise of cracking down on illegal immigration.

His top priority, people familiar with Sessions told The Hill, will be to deport undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes while in the country.

The second will be to retaliate against “sanctuary cities,” which refuse to enforce federal laws on illegal immigration, by starving them of federal money.

A focus on social issues

With Trump restocking judicial benches with conservative judges and Sessions in charge of the Office of Solicitor General, experts believe it is likely that cases that aim to affirm controversial religious liberty laws or those challenging the nation’s abortion laws will wind their way to the Supreme Court.

Blackwell said Sessions will “assertively protect religious liberty laws." Many in the LGBT community see "religious liberty laws" as a direct affront to the new protections afforded them in the Obama years.

One early focus will likely be repealing the Johnson Amendment to the IRS tax code — another Trump campaign promise — that prevents religious groups from engaging in partisan activities.

And Nance, whose group is opposed to abortion, says she expects a Supreme Court challenge to Roe v. Wade during Trump’s first term.

Former Attorney General Barr and former Deputy Attorney General Thompson both said that states that have broken with federal law and voted to legalize marijuana may be in for a reckoning.

“The whole basis of the system is that laws have to be uniform,” said Barr. “He’ll start a discussion about that.”

A crackdown on gang violence

During the campaign, Trump memorably described African-American and Hispanic residents in the United States as “living in hell” and offered to help. 

Sessions could be the point man in those efforts.

Conservatives are furious with Obama and his Justice Department for what they view as an abdication of responsibility in addressing the gang, gun and drug violence that has erupted in some major cities. 

Chicago's murder rate, for example, was at a two-decade high last year, even as much of the rest of the country experiences near-historic low murder rates.

Republicans expect the new Justice Department will direct more government money and resources to the afflicted areas, pointing to a Trump tweet that urged Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to seek federal help.

In addition, Sessions’s allies argue that he’ll escalate the war on drugs, something they say was dramatically drawn back during the Obama administration and responsible for some of the inner city violence.

Some conservatives believe he’ll be more aggressive in charging drug and gun offenders with federal crimes. These result in “more certain punishments” and keep dangerous offenders locked up longer than if offenders were charged at the local level, Thompson said.

But for many Republicans, the root of the crime problem lies with the relationship between Obama’s Justice Department and local law enforcement, which has been marked by several high-profile Justice Department investigations into police practices in Cleveland, Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.

They believe this has undermined police authority and effectiveness at the local level by promoting the assumption that police are inherently bad.

Sessions allies say he’ll bring a “police-first” mentality that will energize and embolden the police and lead to greater collaboration between the feds and local law enforcement in anti-gang work.

A change in how foreign terror suspects are prosecuted

Sessions is expected to rely more heavily on military commissions to prosecute foreign terror suspects. That'd be a switch from the Obama administration, which prosecuted foreign terror suspects in civilian courts with some frequency.

Conservatives have been outraged by the practice, believing that prosecuting foreign adversaries in open court affords the defendants undue rights, restricts the means in which the criminals can be detained and leaves the U.S. vulnerable to exposing sensitive secrets or endangering assets abroad.

The case study here was Holder’s attempt to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged 9/11 plotters at a Manhattan court. The backlash prompted Holder to move the trials to a military court at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Those close to Sessions say that cases of domestic terror could still be tried in civilian courts here, but that the days of open public trials for foreign nationals are over, especially given Trump’s interest in utilizing and potentially expanding Guantanamo Bay.