How thoroughly could Jeff Sessions transform the Department of Justice?

The Alabama senator was an early supporter of Donald Trump, and a longtime critic of government policies on trade and immigration.

Marvin Gentry/Reuters
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama speaks next to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison, Ala., on Feb. 28, 2016.

Thirty years ago, when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama was seeking a federal judgeship, he never got past the Senate hearings.

Questioning from the Senate Judiciary Committee honed in on allegations of racially charged comments and jokes made by the senator, who was then a US attorney in Alabama. One of the allegations he didn’t deny: that he had once suggested that a white civil rights attorney who represented black clients was “a disgrace to his race.”

“I believe the statement was I had said maybe he is, and that is really disturbing to me,” he told the committee chairman during that 1986 hearing, according to transcripts. “I do not know why I would have said that, and I certainly do not believe that.”

That allegation, and a flood of others like it, ended up downing his bid for the judgeship. Now, he’ll face another set of confirmation hearings, this time for the top spot in the Department of Justice.  

The Trump transition team announced on Friday that the president-elect would nominate Senator Sessions to the position of attorney general, according to CNN.

The nomination of Sessions – whose views on trade, immigration, and racial justice issues align closely with those espoused by President-elect Donald Trump – turns the focus to how thoroughly the new administration could reshape the Department of Justice, after a campaign in which Mr. Trump’s attacks on judges, and his threat to jail his competitor, alarmed opponents on both sides of the aisle.

“The Department of Justice has a somewhat unique status among federal agencies in that traditionally, the attorney general has some independence from the White House,” says William Yeomans, a longtime civil-rights litigator at the Justice Department and a current law and government fellow at American University’s Washington College of Law.

Sessions was one of the earliest top Republicans to endorse Trump, and the only senator to do so before he won the nomination, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Francine Kiefer reported in May:

As one of the Senate’s staunchest opponents of the Pacific trade deal and immigration reform, the diminutive Southerner has tried to convince his colleagues that Trump is the right candidate with the right message – that free trade and illegal immigration are killing jobs and wages.

They didn’t listen. But, speaking to a scrum of reporters Tuesday [May 10] on Capitol Hill, Senator Sessions said he's urging his colleagues to reconsider. The senator said he would be “worried” if Republican congressional candidates separated themselves from the core of Trump’s message, because “Donald Trump is part of a movement.”

That loyalty, or ideological affinity, probably didn’t hurt Sessions’ chances in the running for attorney general. But he’ll become a point figure for those keeping watch over the politicization of institutions during the Trump presidency.

Much of the Justice Department, particularly the civil and tax divisions, spends a lot of time on basic work that doesn’t change much according to which party is in power, Mr. Yeomans tells the Monitor. And caution is usually taken during the transition period soon after the handoff, to avoid the perception that the department is being politicized.

But as time wears on, there remains significant leeway for the attorney general to replace top personnel, such as the assistant attorney generals who head each of the separate divisions, as well as their deputies, special assistants, and counsel – all of whom are political appointees.

Some of those appointees can become career civil servants, who can’t be so swiftly replaced. There were signs during the campaign that Trump’s camp would even go after them, if they were Obama-era appointees – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said back in July that the Trump team planned to pursue reforms to civil-service laws to uproot those appointees who tried to “burrow” in.

Hiring decisions occurring farther down the hierarchy can also become politicized, as they did during the Bush administration: A 2008 report by the department’s inspector general denounced what it called a “pattern of deselecting candidates based on political or ideological affiliations.”

"In sum," the report concluded, "the data showed that candidates with Democratic Party and liberal affiliations apparent on their applications were deselected at a significantly higher rate than candidates with Republican Party, conservative or neutral affiliations."

Conservatives repeatedly accused the Justice Department of politicization throughout the Obama years as well, though without the kind of systematic evidence provided by the inspector general in that report.

Even without such politicization, the attorney general can still steer the ship of the bureaucracy a long way over a term or two. The Obama era saw the ascent of the civil rights division (“the crown jewel” of the agency, as former attorney general Eric Holder has put it) in a long wave of progressive action on issues like drug reform, mass incarceration, and how racial biases inform policing.

Big policy changes are probably on the way in that division, along with others in the anti-trust and environmental and natural resources divisions, says Yeomans. Voting laws might be a key focus: the department currently has lawsuits against states with photo-ID laws widely seen by liberals to be attempts at suppressing the minority vote.  

“Some people want to make it sound like Sessions can walk in the door and change everything,” he says. “It’s a process, and it’s complicated. But eventually, he can remake the department.”

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