Jeff Sessions Was the Worst Attorney General in Modern American History

On Wednesday, the Trump administration bid farewell to one of its most infamous members: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In his brief tenure, Sessions managed to dismantle and rescind an astounding range of efforts by prior administrations to protect civil rights and civil liberties and introduced new policies that endanger some of the most vulnerable citizens in the U.S.

From his draconian approach to immigration policy to his efforts to erase protections for transgender people to his many moves to dismantle his predecessors’ attempts to decrease the federal prison population, the list of Sessions’ offenses is long. We’ve rounded up some of the former attorney general’s most egregious actions below to showcase Sessions' contempt for civil rights and liberties.

Immigration

Sessions did everything in his power to speed up deportations and aid the separation of families, issuing a series of policies that trampled on due process. The Justice Department ended a program to notify immigrants of their rights during deportation cases, set arbitrary and unreasonable quotas for immigration judges, and repeatedly overruled immigration court and Board of Immigration Appeals' decisions on his own initiative.

This summer, the former attorney general attracted criticism from U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan for requiring victims of domestic violence seeking asylum to meet a nearly impossible threshold during the asylum screening process. Following the summary deportation of two ACLU clients, a woman and her child who fled rape and other brutality in El Salvador, Judge Sullivan asked: “Somebody in pursuit of justice who has alleged a credible fear in her mind and is seeking justice in a United States court is just spirited away?” He went on to order the government to “turn the plane around” and return our clients to the U.S.

In September, the ACLU published a first-person account of a survivor of domestic violence from Mexico who was granted asylum prior to the introduction of Sessions’ new policy. “People like me come from countries where the police and justice system do not protect women and girls,” she wrote. “For the United States to deny us refuge says our lives mean nothing.”

Under Sessions, the Justice Department also made a series of increasingly desperate attempts to bully states and localities into colluding with its draconian detention and deportation agenda, in spite of being repeatedly blocked by the courts. And Sessions fully endorsed Trump’s decision to end the DACA program, which provides protection from deportation to hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people who came here through no fault of their own.  Sessions maintained that the relief, granted by the Obama administration, was an “unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.”

Criminal Justice

Sessions’ efforts to dismantle civil rights and civil liberties protections gained during prior administrations are especially apparent when it comes to criminal justice. He rescinded multiple Obama-era memos, including one that directed federal resources away from enforcing federal drug laws in states that have legalized medical or recreational use of marijuana. The move was part of the former attorney general’s fear-driven agenda to reinvigorate the War on Drugs and to systematically dismantle his predecessors’ efforts to reduce federal imprisonment rates. Among those efforts was Sessions’ directive to prosecutors to bring the harshest possible cases against defendants — including people like Marion Hungerford, a mentally ill woman who was sentenced to 159 years in federal prison for helping to commit a string of armed robberies, even though she never touched the gun.

In May, Sessions falsely claimed that the settlement between the ACLU of Illinois and the Chicago Police Department was to blame for hundreds of deaths and shootings in the city. The landmark agreement followed the release of a groundbreaking report documenting officers’ unlawful use of stop and frisk. Sessions’ assertion that abiding by the Constitution increases crime is unsupported by the evidence and deeply flawed as a matter of principle. 

Throughout his tenure, Sessions resisted efforts to make the work of prosecutors more transparent and fair. Just last month, the Justice Department opposed the release of an opinion by the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility that required federal prosecutors working in the state to disclose all information favorable to criminal defendants.

Sessions also sought to limit the work of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Efforts to seek justice for people killed during police encounters have been dismissed, such as when the Justice Department declined to pursue federal civil rights charges against the officers involved in Alton Sterling’s death, or have been stonewalled, as in the prolonged civil rights investigation into the killing of Eric Garner.

Under prior attorney generals, the Justice Department undertook numerous civil rights investigations into local police departments and entered into consent decrees seeking to end racially discriminatory police practices in places such as Seattle; Los Angeles County; New Orleans; Baltimore; Newark; East Haven, Connecticut; and Ferguson, Missouri. But with Sessions’ arrival, an era of systemic police reform in cooperation with the federal government came to an end. In a March 2017 memo, Sessions instructed Justice Department officials to stay out of local police officers’ business. He has also ended a critical community policing program formerly used to address racial profiling and other issues, such as excessive use of force. And just before Sessions tendered his resignation on Wednesday, he signed a memo making it harder for the Justice Department to enter into consent decrees with police departments accused of civil rights and liberties abuses. 

Transgender Rights

Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, Sessions began systematically reversing hard-won legal protections for transgender people. In February 2017, the Justice Department revoked a guidance issued in 2016 by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice on the rights of transgender students under Title IX.

In May 2018, the former attorney general took his efforts to dismantle protections for transgender people into the criminal justice system when he introduced a new policy mandating prison placements based on assigned sex at birth, except in rare cases. The policy, which endangers transgender people in prison, replaced a former rule, which required that gender identity — a person’s authentic, core understanding of their own gender — play a central role in whether a person is held in a male or female prison.

In October of this year, the Justice Department filed a brief with the Supreme Court attacking an appeals court decision in favor of our client Aimee Stephens. Aimee, a transgender woman, was fired from her job of six years at a funeral home after coming out to her employer. After Aimee sued the funeral home, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled for her in March, stating that discrimination against transgender people is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “No one should be fired because of who they are,” Aimee wrote for us in October.

Sessions disagrees. The Justice Department’s critique of the appeals court reflects its ongoing attack on transgender people. And last year, Sessions declared that transgender people would no longer be protected from sex discrimination under Title VII, changing the rules for all federal programs. Attacks like these bolstered an October announcement that the Trump administration plans to eliminate nondiscrimination protections for trans people found in federal civil rights law by changing the definition of “sex.”

Voting Rights

Voting rights also came under attack during Sessions’ reign over the Justice Department. A controversial memo from the Department of Commerce to the Census Bureau in 2018 mandating the addition of a question on citizenship to the Census was triggered by an earlier request from a Trump appointee in the Justice Department.

When career civil rights attorneys in the Justice Department refused to sign on to efforts by the administration to roll back voting rights, Sessions — who once called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” — simply cherry-picked political appointees to work on those issues instead.

After Sessions

Following Sessions’ forced resignation, Trump quickly moved to place Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general. Whitaker, a lawyer and former prosecutor, was Sessions’ chief of staff. There is little reason to believe that he will not follow in his predecessor’s footsteps on issues of civil rights and civil liberties. All those who care about civil liberties and civil rights will need to keep a close eye on the Justice Department. Sessions’ tenure was a disaster, and his replacement promises more of the same.    

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Diana

How sad. The above comments show us that we have indeed lost American citizens. We've lost them to fear, ignorance, and self-righteousness. They should note that the ACLU is about protecting their rights. Human rights. Not politicos who spread fear. We do indeed need to teach our children that Americans are every color, shape and size, and each of has a right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. That these ideals have become dangerous to some Americans is just sad. It also shows us how important education is to democracy-and I don't mean Rapture studies on Sundays. Perhaps we could teach folks that government for all the people run by a handful of out of touch crooks is not democracy. Before the election-in which citizens voted to replace almost 40 congressional positions with Democrats, many young, some female, some minority, I was very worried. I still am, but it looks like this election shed a bright light on the 'Better Angels' of our nation. We can now see that dinosaurs like Sessions are dwindling, and our democracy will survive. Hopefully public servants will start putting patriotism first, and their religious biases can go back into their homes and churches where they belong.

Anonymous

You can read the article yourself and decide if it is true, or dramatic bullshit designed to drive donations from panicked progressives. I guess AG Gonzales, who legally justified torture, is only a runner up, alongside AG Holder, who legally defended the president murdering people with drones. Never mind all the AG's who fought for segregation and opposed equal rights from 1865 for a hundred some years. Whatever.

Bill Abendroth

....the article specified "modern times"--which technically excused (for example) those Attorneys General who prosecuted runaway slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act, or Warren Harding's crooked Attorney General......

While I also disputed above calling Sessions the "worst"--your argument that Eric Holder defended President Obama's drone attacks seems misplaced....I would have put that more in the office of the Secretary of State.

Bill Abendroth

CLEARLY, Jeff Sessions is no one's idea of a "good" AG....but I would never call him the "worst in modern times"--of course, that all depends on your notion of "modern." All in all, I'd put Sessions in fourth place--out of medal contention. For me, the Bronze goes to Ed Meese (one of Reagan's AGs). The Silver goes to Alberto Gonzales. The Gold--of course--stays with Nixon's John Mitchell....the only Attorney General in US history to have done hard time....Mitchell wound up serving 19 months in the big house......

AnonymouS

All of your posts are well stated, with a sound rationales. I really don't know if there is a "Sheriff of Nottingham" type of AG measurement, with the worse doing damage to the people the AG is supposed to protect under the law. But at some point, especially with all the legal specifications applied, the lines get very blurred regarding interpretation of the law. Enter then, the courts. And here is where Sessions has manipulated the situation even worse by hamstringing judges' decisions with his political hacking of the system. So, I'll refer to Newt Gingrich, the first speaker of the House to be punished, by the House, for ethics violations which voted overwhelmingly, 395-28, to reprimand Gingrich and fine him $300,000 penalty. He also tried to blur the lines on the law, suggesting he could get away with the ethics violations. And so, we see that ethics violations can keep people in line, except as in the Trump administration, they leave many of those ethics review positions vacant so there is little oversight. But for truth in government to be a reality, our representatives need to be held to the ethical requirements of their position -- and if not, a financial penalty will set them straight or they can resign. Truth be told, Sessions broke the law with his perjury to the Senate during confirmation hearings, and his only punishment was recusal from the Mueller investigation into what he lied about, his direct contact with Russians by the 2016 Trump campaign that they denied over and over again, of ever having any discussions with foreign Russian operatives. In retrospect, President Clinton was impeached for perjury, so ethics have been applied in many cases to keep truth in government alive -- even though Republicans are still giving Gingrich's lies credibility on Fox.

Anonymous

So now he's bad again? The left despised Sessions for years, but when Trump forced him out, many liberals decried the move and declared Sessions to be an awesome, amazing guy. 6000 people marched in very liberal NYC in support of the "newly awesome" Jeff Sessions. so now the ACLU is giving out fresh orders for liberals to go back and hate Sessions again. Gotcha.

Anonymous

Quit sniveling , all politicians are two faced degenerates , the republican party is all about whitey and the democrats are all about the white mans demise those assholes want to herd there fellow man like cattle through incarceration same w the police who continue to steal from tax paying citizens , if the white house was full of blacks and mexicans it would be the most corrupt federal govt in the history of the usa and your ass would be susceptible to. More robbery assault etc . thats a fact but it really doesnt matter because there will be race wars by the end of this century . quit sugar coating it you cowards nnews flash mexicans do not like white people and they hate black people even more. They are un educated and dont really care about this country i mean they love there country and its a shit hole . so thats a reality check to all of you pc pussies. Ps i live in los angeles and work for a paisa from jalisco mexico ive known him for years we are good friends but thats a isolated case they made it very clear mexicans are racsist and really are not interested in tolerance they are exploited by americans and will always resent us no matter what and open borders are not something the us govt , zetas, nuevo jalisco,and the sinaloa cartels want (its not good for buisness )

Anonymous

Please do everyone a favor and climb into your racist bunker and do not interact with society ever again. You are a danger to forward progress in the USA. Please do not procreate either.

Anonymous

Diana the aclu is about protecting the civil rights of african americans and people of color while they turn a blind eye to the constant attacks on the white community whether criminal or verbal, they have become a big part of what is divisive and what is destroying the fabric of this great country , i live in los angeles i work for a mexican from jalisco mexico weve been good friends for years , but we have talked. He tells me that mexicans are racsist they dont like americans of their own race , hate white people and have even less tolerance for people of african decent. Do you understand the reality is the majority of people that live in los angeles hate you cuz of your skin color. And beleive it goes both ways and can you recognize these facts are something the wonderful ACLU refuses to recognize because theres no money to be made in defending the civil rights of white men . so save that bullshit about defending americans civil rights cuz white people cannot be defended . there is no defense for being white . i will be impressed if they forward this to comments cuz the truth could seriously effect the bottom line .

Leslie

Yeah-the next attorney general will say, “hold my beer.”

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