On Feb. 26, the full panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld federal protections for LGBT employees in the workplace. Attorney General Jeff Sessions not only opposed that position in legal filings, he attacked the judges after they ruled against him, saying, “I guess maybe the judges woke up that morning, read the New York Times or something, and decided their previous ruling was wrong.”
Jeff Sessions is a successful politician, and he responded to this ruling as a partisan politician might. Too bad that’s not his job anymore. Having spent 20 years as a U.S. senator from Alabama, his unrelenting partisanship is now undermining the Justice Department in a way that threatens the civil rights of people across the nation.
The attorney general of the United States is often described as “the country’s top law enforcement officer.” The office leads the nation’s federal law enforcement apparatus, including thousands of federal prosecutors around the country, who work on violations of federal law, including domestic terrorism, civil rights violations, insider trading, to name a few. While these prosecutors wield significant discretion, it is Jeff Sessions who sets their priorities. He can, if he pleases, squash or promote certain types of prosecution against certain communities.
Sessions’ gay panic is just one example of his efforts to diminish rights and protections for certain groups, while intensifying the nation’s mass incarceration culture. He recently announced that he would end Obama-era protections for marijuana users in states that have legalized possession. While marijuana possession is still a federal crime — one based on retrograde, anti-scientific laws — he is using his authority to counter the will of voters in states where the public supports decriminalization of marijuana. He is doing this based on a comically outdated view of marijuana — that “good people” don’t smoke it — and a tragic resuscitation of the failed war on drugs more broadly.
The list goes on and on. When nonpartisan career attorneys at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division refused to sign on to the effort to roll back voting rights because they weren’t supported by the law, Sessions simply cherry-picked political appointees to work on those issues instead.
Rather than deferring to local police departments that voluntarily entered consent decrees with the Civil Rights Division to correct their unconstitutional practices, Sessions ordered his attorneys to review those decrees to see if they might damage police morale. He has also questioned the authority of federal judges when those judges rebuke President Trump. And, earlier this month, Sessions shuttered an office at the Justice Department charged with increasing access to legal representation for those who can’t afford it.
The work of federal prosecutors in protecting Americans from threats foreign and domestic, including from within our government, is noble and necessary. But Sessions is instead using the Department of Justice as a platform and tool in an ideological culture war. He and the rest of the Trump administration are eager to appear tough on crime, but they are just being tough on people — especially those in low-income communities, queer communities, and communities of color who can no longer depend on the attorney general to protect them.