On Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., will face the Senate Judiciary Committee and answer questions from his colleagues, who will play a key role in deciding whether to confirm his nomination to be the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
The attorney general is in charge of the Department of Justice and its components — the FBI, DEA, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Bureau of Prisons, Office of Justice Programs, and the U.S. Attorneys and U.S. Marshals Service.
It won’t be the first time Sessions has worked at the Justice Department, should he be confirmed. He served for two years as assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, and then as U.S. attorney for Alabama’s Southern District for 12 years after President Reagan nominated him in 1981.
As attorney general, Sessions would face a daunting portfolio of controversy and criminal activity. Almost every intractable national problem passes across the attorney general’s desk in some form.
Here are three issues likely to come up in his confirmation hearing — and repeatedly during his tenure.
Police and Community
In the wake of high-profile officer-involved shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago, the Obama Justice Department has aggressively pursued investigations into police departments across the country. Since the start of the Obama administration, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has opened 25 investigations into law enforcement agencies.
The division is expected to release its long-awaited report on the practices of the Chicago police department later this week. An investigation was announced in December 2015 to examine whether the Chicago police routinely engage in a pattern or practice of discriminatory or unconstitutional policing.
Sessions will certainly face questions from the committee about how he would handle the problems identified in Chicago, as well as the five other police department investigations that remain open – in Baltimore, Ville Platte (Louisiana), Evangeline Parish (Louisiana), and Orange County, California.
“Building trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve is one of my highest priorities as attorney general,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said as she announced the Chicago investigation.
But some have questioned whether the Obama Justice Department has been too aggressive in going after police departments.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest law enforcement group, enthusiastically endorsed Sessions’ nomination.
“We are very, very pleased with the decision of President-elect Trump to tap Senator Sessions to be our nation’s next ‘top cop,’” the group said in a statement. The group’s president, Chuck Canterbury, is slated to testify in support of Session’s nomination. Both men are expected to face questions about the future of federal police reform.
One of the most enduring themes of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign was his opposition to illegal immigration. In Sessions, he’s found one of the most consistent supporters of hard-line immigration enforcement.
Sessions led the opposition against the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, as well as the 2013 “Gang of Eight” bill. He has also been a leading opponent of Mr. Obama’s use of executive action to push immigration reform.
“’Immigration reform” may be the single most abused phrase in the English language,” Sessions opined in the “Immigration Handbook” he authored for Republicans in Congress in 2015. “It has become a legislative honorific almost exclusively reserved for proposals which benefit everyone but actual American citizens.”
In the 25-page memo, he offered his analysis of immigration reform in Washington.
“The only ‘immigration reforms’ discussed in Washington are those pushed by interest groups who want to remove what few immigration controls are left in order to expand the record labor supply even further,” he complained.
The responsibility for enforcing immigration laws actually rests with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but the Justice Department oversees immigration courts. As attorney general, Sessions would have a significant role in deciding how those courts operate and how aggressively to pursue criminal action against illegal immigrants.
Sessions is likely going to face questions – from both sides of the aisle – about how he plans to use the office of attorney general to implement his vision for immigration enforcement.
Marijuana, which is legal in 26 states and the District of Columbia, is big business, and if Sessions is confirmed as attorney general, he could make things extremely difficult for the burgeoning industry.
Like outgoing Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Sessions opposes marijuana legalization. He said at a hearing last year that it’s “a very real danger.”
Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, but the Justice Department has considerable influence over how those laws are enforced.
Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department took two significant steps towards a more relaxed enforcement of marijuana laws.
In 2013, then Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo urging federal prosecutors to use limited investigative and prosecutorial resources to focus on the distribution of marijuana and not on individuals. The so-called “Cole Memo” represented a significant shift in the approach to prosecuting marijuana violations.
The next year, he issued another memo aimed at alleviating concerns that banks would be prosecuted for doing business with legal cannabis business.
As attorney general, Sessions could reverse both of these initiatives, opt to enforce the federal drug laws fully and not be lenient on banks doing transactions with marijuana businesses.
While the attorney general has very little influence over state policy, the Justice Department’s policy priorities can make life very difficult for legal cannabis dealers.
The marijuana industry has been tepid in its response to Sessions. The National Cannabis Industry Association issued a statement in response to his nomination, saying it hoped to work together.
“Voters in 28 states have chosen programs that shift cannabis from the criminal market to highly regulated, tax-paying businesses,” the statement read. “Senator Sessions has long advocated for state sovereignty, and we look forward to working with him to ensure that states’ rights and voter choices on cannabis are respected.”
Sessions’ nomination hearing is expected to take place over two days — Tuesday and Wednesday.