Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions began his oft-interrupted opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning by thanking those within the law enforcement community for their support. He also took a few moments to note the recent deaths of police officers killed in the line of duty. This was no coincidence. The senator from Alabama’s prepared remarks focused heavily on his long history as a prosecutor and his stark views on crime and punishment, and he came back to criminal justice themes repeatedly during the course of his answers to the mostly-friendly questions asked of him by his colleagues.
In the morning, Sessions sparred with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., over the former’s refusal to support federal hate crime legislation. He agreed with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that violence against the police is a terrible thing. He agreed to disagree with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who pressed the nominee about federal sentencing reform. And Sessions agreed with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., that Congress did the right thing in trying to eliminate or reduce prison rape and that the Obama administration did the wrong thing when it reduced its use of Operation Streamline, a controversial immigration program that expedited the pace of criminal convictions and extended the length of detention for undocumented immigrants.
In the afternoon, in an exchange with Sen Chris Coons, D-Del., Sessions defended his work as Alabama attorney general decades ago, when he endorsed the use of “chain gangs” and “hitching posts” on state prisoners, a practice called “clearly unconstitutional” by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. More broadly, Coons and Sessions tangled over the question of why Sessions often has been to the right of even his fellow Republicans when it comes to mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing reform.
Another interesting series of exchanges later in the day had Leahy and Sessions, and then Sessions and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, discussing the conflict between state marijuana laws and federal drug policy. Twice the nominee was given the opportunity to declare that he would as attorney general follow the Obama administration’s policy of generally eschewing federal prosecutions of those lawfully using marijuana in states that have legalized it. And twice the nominee refused to commit to any position other than that he would never forego in advance the enforcement of any federal law. He was, however, less zealous than before in expressing zeal for enforcement of marijuana laws.
Toward the end of the day, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., cited some of the broad support police unions have for Sessions. Kennedy then asked the nominee what he would do to further support the efforts of local law enforcement agencies. And Sessions answered, with gusto, that he believes that federal support for local police had eroded during the Obama administration and that he looked forward to restoring the sort of federal assistance that comes with fewer strings and fewer conditions designed to eliminate police misconduct.
Later, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, pressed Sessions specifically on federal consent decrees designed to rein in police departments found to be engaging in patterns and practice of misconduct, including racially discriminatory policing. The nominee confirmed that he is not categorically opposed to the use of consent decrees but said “there’s concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Justice Department when you just have individuals within the department who have done wrong.” Hirono then reminded Sessions that “patterns and practices” investigations by definition involved broader claims of police misconduct.
Toward the end of the day, in response to a question from Coons, Sessions said he endorsed the idea of federal help to those police departments that seek it from the Justice Department. And, last of all, nearly 11 hours into the hearing, under questioning from committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Sessions lamented political statements that he said labeled the vast majority of good cops as bad cops. Then Sessions told Grassley that he blamed “a corrosion of respect” for the police for the increase in the recent shootings of police officers.