Sessions Hints That He’d Soften Obama-Era Consent Decrees With Local Police

Attorney General-designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) suggested at Tuesday’s Attorney General confirmation hearing that he may be open to softening consent decrees hammered out by the Obama administration with police departments accused of discriminatory or otherwise illegal policing. He said that police departments “often feel forced to agree to a consent decree just to remove that stigma and sometimes there are difficulties there.”

The comment was one of a number in which Sessions, during what will be his only day of testimony, hinted that he intended to take the Justice Department in a different direction from the current administration. For instance, in a discussion about the Obama administration’s attitude of letting states experiment with marijuana legalization, Sessions said, “One obvious concern is that Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and distribution of it an illegal act.”

Much of the nine-and-a-half-hour questioning of Sessions by his Judiciary Committee peers focused on controversial comments that he had made previously, as well as some of the stances that President-elect Donald Trump took during the presidential campaign.

Sessions was forced to clarify comments he made during the presidential campaign that grabbing someone by the pussy — as Donald Trump described doing on a 2005 Access Hollywood tape — did not qualify as sexual assault. He also said he would recuse himself of investigations involving Hillary Clinton controversies that came up during her presidential race against Trump. He vowed to follow the Supreme Court’s decisions on same-sex marriage and abortion, even though he had previously criticized the rulings. He also dodged a question about whether he believe Russia was behind election-related hacking by saying he had not done any “research” into the matter. Later he conceded that he had “no reason to doubt” the report by the U.S. intelligence community that found that Russia, through cyberattacks and other methods, sought to influence the presidential campaign.

Sessions said he opposed banning Muslims as a religious group, but added that he believed religious views should be considered when vetting immigrants if those views were “inamicable to the public safety of the United States.”

Even before the hearing began, protestors were removed for heckling Sessions, and throughout the beginning of the hearing, other demonstrators were removed for their disruptions.

Check back below for our ongoing coverage of the hearing:

Update 7:08: Sessions was asked by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) about his criticisms of a 2002 Supreme Court case that declared unconstitutional the execution of intellectually disabled offenders Sessions at the time complained that the court was telling states “that they could not execute people who were retarded.”

On Tuesday, Sessions said that he and Coons could disagree on the “question of intellectual disabilities” as a “matter of policy.”

“Perhaps I was questioning the legal mandate,” Sessions said. “But a person with intellectual disabilities, that should be considered as a factor in the sentencing jury or the judge’s opinion before they go forward. But obviously, if a person knows the difference in right and wrong, historically they would be held to the same standard even though their intellectual ability would be less. “

Update 6:40: Less than an hour after it had been published, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) questioned Sessions about a bombshell CNN report that, among other things, included allegations of communications between the Trump campaign and Russian intermediaries.

“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions said. “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”

Update 6:15: Sessions indicated he would be open to renegotiating the consent decrees hashed out between Obama’s Justice Department and local police departments. When questioned on the issue by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Sessions first said he didn’t want to prejudge a specific case.

“I just wouldn’t commit that there would never be any changes in them,” he said. “And if departments have complied or reached other developments that could justify the withdrawal or modification of the consent decree, of course I would do that.”

Challenged further by Hirono, he said that it was “a difficult thing for a city to be sued by the Department of Justice and to be told that your police department is systematically failing to serve the people of the state or the city.”

He added that police departments “often feel forced to agree to a consent decree just to remove that stigma and sometimes there are difficulties there.”

After another interjection from Hirono, who said her question concerned specifically the consent decrees that had already been negotiated, he said, “I understand what you’re saying and one of the impacts of a consent decree is it does require judicial approval of any alteration in it, and that raises pros and cons.”

Update 5:30 p.m.: Sessions said he would not favor a registry of Muslims in the United States, after a question about it from Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE). One of Trump’s advisors, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has indicated he would like to bring back the Justice Department program known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which tracked male immigrants and visitors from a list of 25 countries, most of which were majority Muslim.

“And I think we should avoid surveillance of religious institutions unless there is a basis to believe that dangerous or threatening activity could be carried on there,” Sessions said, responding to the second part of Coons’ question. “I’m not aware that there’s a legal prohibition on that on the current law.”

Update 5:05 p.m.: Sessions said he did not “know what the president-elect meant or was thinking” when Trump claimed that millions of people voted in the presidential campaign, boosting Clinton’s popular vote.

“I do believe we regularly have fraudulent activities occur during election cycles,” Sessions said.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) followed up with questions about an appeals court ruling that the North Carolina’s omnibus voter restriction law was discriminatory. Sessions reiterated that there are ways for voter ID to be implemented appropriately, but said that, “I support your concern that laws of this kind cannot be used for that purpose.”

“I am not familiar with the details of the North Carolina law,” Sessions said. (The Department of Justice, the agency which Sessions seeks to lead, participated in the lawsuit against the law.)

“Any finding that’s sustainable that there’s a racial animus in the passing of a law that would restrict voting, that law could be unsustainable,” he said.

Update 4:34 p.m.: Sessions suggested he would take a harder line on marijuana than the Obama administration, which has to some extent allowed states to experiment with marijuana legalization without federal prosecution.

“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law,” Sessions said. “But absolutely it’s a problem of resources for the federal government.”

He noted the guidelines the Justice Department has put forward on prosecuting cases in states where marijuana has been legalized, but added “that they may not have been followed.”

He confirmed that did not believe marijuana users deserved the death penalty.

“One obvious concern is that Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and distribution of it an illegal act,” Sessions added later. “If that’s something that is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change [it]. … It is not so much the attorney general’s job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we are able.”

Update 4:23 p.m.: Sessions vowed that, “We will not end the refugee program,” when he was interrogated about his view on refugees by Sen. Patrick Leahy. He added, “we do have a responsibility to be careful and make sure those who are admitted have been properly vetted and are not a danger.”

Update 3:43 p.m.: Sessions would not say whether he would recuse himself from a case investigating the Trump campaign or anyone associated, when asked by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). Sessions said that that scenario would be different than the decision he’s made to recuse himself from any case involving Clinton’s emails or her foundation.

“My response to my recusal issue, was because I had made public comments about it that could be construed as having an opinion on the final judgment that would have to be rendered,” Sessions said. “I don’t think I made any comments on this issue that would go to that. But I would review it and try do the right thing as to whether or not it should stay within the jurisdiction of the Attorney General or not. “

Update 3:31 p.m.: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) grilled Sessions for a comment he made during the presidential campaign that grabbing someone by the genitals — as Trump bragged about doing on a 2005 Access Hollywood tape — was not sexual assault. Sessions has tried to walk back the remark since, but Leahy asked him again whether he believed the behavior described was sexual assault.

“Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?” Leahy asked.

“Clearly, it would be,” Sessions replied.

After a back-and-forth about whether Sessions would be willing to investigate in a federal context a President or high ranking official accused of what Trump described, Sessions reiterated his initial walk-back on the original comment.

“Well, the confusion about the question was a hypothetical question. And it related to what was said on the tape. I did not remember at the time whether that this was suggested to be an unaccepted, unwanted, which certainly would meet the definition. If that’s what the tape said then that would be –” Sessions said, before Leahy cut him off.

“My question is very simple. Is grabbing a woman by her genitals without consent, is that sexual assault?” Leahy asked.

“Yes,” Sessions said.

Update 3:04 p.m.: Sessions said that the attorney general “may well have a responsibility and duty to intervene” in cases where states’ voting restrictions are being challenged under the Voting Rights Act, but was vague on how he would handled the issue.

“This administration’s attorney general has intervened when it felt that it was appropriate and did not intervene when it did not feel it was appropriate so I think my responsibility would be to ensure that there is no discriminatory problems with a Voting Rights Act-kind of a state,” Sessions said, in a response to a question from Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) regarding the Obama administration’s involvement in voter ID cases in Texas and elsewhere.

Hirono also asked Sessions whether he would instruct his solicitor general to intervene in a case that could overturn the abortion decision Roe v. Wade, given that a change in the Supreme Court’s make-up could make it open to overturning that ruling.

“You are asking a hypothetical question. Those cases seldom come up on such a clear issue. They come up at the margins. I just would not be able to predict what a well-researched thoughtful response would be to matters that could happen in the future,” Sessions said.

Update at 2:29 p.m.: After opening his time for questions with an extended diatribe against Democratic senators, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) blasted Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) for his line of questioning earlier in the hearing suggesting that Sessions had exaggerated his involvement in certain civil rights cases.

“It is unfortunate to see members of this body impugn the integrity of a fellow senator with whom we have served for years. It is particularly unfortunate when that attack is not backed up by the facts,” Cruz said, adding that one of the lawyers who has cast doubts on Sessions’ claims about his record testified against Sessions in his 1986 judgeship hearings.

“There is no question you have been forthright with this committee and I would note that members of this committee don’t have to search far and wide to know who Jeff Sessions is. We have known everyday sitting on this bench along side you,” Cruz said.

Updated 1:08 p.m.: Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) engaged in one of the more testy exchanges with Sessions over his involvement as a U.S. attorney in civil rights and desegregation cases. Franken questioned the claim that Sessions filed 20 to 30 desegregation cases. Franken also brought up the three voting rights cases and a desegregation case that Sessions’ hearing questionnaire list among his 10 most significant cases he was personally handled. Franken noted that three of the DOJ attorneys who brought three of those cases have said that Sessions was not substantively involved. They then had a back-and-forth about what Sessions actually contributed to the cases.

“I signed them. I supported cases. And I attempted to be as effective as I could be in helping them be successful in these historic cases. I did feel that they were the kind of cases that were national in scope, and deserved be listed on the form,” Sessions said.

Update 12:53 p.m.: Sessions defended a characterization he previously made that the Voting Rights Act was “intrusive” and he said that “on the surface” voter I.D. laws did not disproportionally affect minority voters.

Asked by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) how he planned to handle a specific ruling against a Texas voter ID law, Sessions said he had not “studied” the case but “there’s going to be a debate about it.”

“I have publicly said I think voter I.D. laws properly drafted are okay, but as attorney general it will be my duty to study the facts in more depth, to analyze the law, but fundamentally that can be decided by Congress and courts as they interpret the existing law,” Sessions said.

Update 12:35 p.m.: Sessions said he had “no reason to doubt” a report by U.S. intelligence agencies that concluded Russians sought to interfere with the presidential campaign through cyberattacks and other means. His comment, in a respond to a question from Klobuchar, came after he had dodged a question earlier in the hearing as to whether he believed Russia was behind the cyberattacks.

Update 12:28 p.m: During the hearing, press received “fact sheets,” including one from the Trump transition team, on some of the controversies that doomed Sessions’ nomination to a federal judgeship in the mid-1980s. During that hearing, alleged comments he made as U.S. attorney disparaging civil rights group came up. He has also been scrutinized for his involvement as a U.S. attorney in a case against civil rights activists for a voter drive.

Update 12:20 p.m.: Sessions said he did not think he participated in the lock her up chants that became common at Trump campaign rallies, but added that he thought the chants were “humorously done.”

Update 11:56 a.m.:
Sessions dodged Sen. Lindsay Graham’s (R-SC) question as to whether he believe Russians were being election-related hacking.

“I have done no research into that. I know just what the media says about it,” Sessions said.

Graham, who has been particularly vocal about his concerns with Russia, quipped back, “Do you think you could get briefed soon?”

Update 11:50 a.m.: Sessions was questioned on Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration, and denied he would support Muslim entry to the United States on the basis of their religion. He however had to defend a vote he took against a resolution to oppose such a policy.

“My concern was in the resolution, it was suggesting that you could not seriously consider a person’s religious views, even, and often, sometimes, at least not in a majority, but many people do have religious views that are inamicable to the public safety of the United States,” Sessions said. “I did not want to have a resolution that suggested that that could not be a factor in the vetting process before someone is admitted.”

“But I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admission to the United States,” Sessions added.

Update 11:35 a.m.: Sessions waffled on his past stances opposing legislation that would expand hate crimes definition to include the targeting of LGBT people. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) brought up Sessions’ vote against a successful amendment Leahy offered to a defense bill that did so, and Sessions’ comments at the time that he did not believe LGBT people faced that kind of discrimination. Session said the comment didn’t sound like something he would say and suggested it was taken out of context. As Leahy continued to press, Sessions said that at the time he thought the crimes could be prosecuted in state court and that he wanted to see more studies on anti-LGBT hate crimes. He eventually said that he intended to enforce the current law.

The law has been passed, the Congress has spoken, you can be sure I will enforce it,” Sessions said.

Update 11:04 a.m.: Sessions said he would follow the Supreme Court’s decisions on abortion and same-sex marriage. He was responding to a question from Feinstein who brought up his past criticisms of those decisions.

Update 11:00 a.m.: Sessions said he intended to recuse himself into investigations into former Secretary of State with regards to the controversies that came up during the presidential campaign. He was responding to a question from Grassley about his rhetoric during the campaign in support of Donald Trump.

“I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kinds of investigation that involve Secretary Clinton that were raised during the campaign,” Sessions said.

Update 10:43 a.m.: While outlining what he saw the duties of an Attorney General to be, Sessions said in his opening remarks that “He or she must be willing to tell the President ‘no’ if he overreaches.”

“He or she cannot be a mere rubberstamp,” Sessions said, in the prepared version of the remarks.

The issue came up again, when Grassley asked Sessions if he would stand up to the President when need be.

“I understand the responsibility of the Attorney General,” he said. “You simply have to help the president do things that he might desire in a lawful way and have to be able to say ‘no.'”

Update 10:33 a.m.:
Sessions included a mention of voting rights in his opening remarks.

He said that he would make “a special priority” to enforce laws to “ensure access to the ballot for every eligible American voter, without hindrance or discrimination, and to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.”

“I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters. I have witnessed it,” he said, according to the prepared version of his remarks.

Update 10:24 a.m.: Sessions’ opening remarks took on a tough-on-crime tone, echoing the law-and-order approach that Trump took in his campaign.

Sessions warned that the country may be a the “beginning of a dangerous trend that could reverse the hard won gains that have made America a safer and more prosperous place.”

Update 10:11 a.m.: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, brought up in her opening remarks Trump’s promise during the campaign to instruct his Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton. She also brought up the concerns raised by civil rights groups and other organizations about Sessions’ stance on various laws, including hate crime laws.

“There is a deep fear about what a Trump administration will bring in many places. And this is the context that we must consider Senator Sessions,” Feinstein said.

Update 10:03 a.m..: Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) used his opening remarks to take some shots at President Obama’s Department of Justice.

“It should go without saying that the Department is tasked with the responsibility of enforcing our laws — all of our laws — in a dispassionate and even-handed way,” Grassley said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “We write the laws.The Executive enforces them faithfully. This is a simple but foundational principle. Unfortunately, for the last several years the Department has simply declined to enforce some laws the Executive branch has found distasteful.”

Updated at 10:02 a.m.: Sessions’ opening remarks can be read here.

Sessions prepared remarks embed:

Update 9:35 a.m.: Protestors from Code Pink and other groups are in attendance for the hearing. Shortly before the hearing was scheduled to begin, two men dressed as KKK Klansmen stood on their chairs to heckle Sessions. They were quickly removed.

Original post:

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday will hold confirmation hearings for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as attorney general, kicking off what is expected to be a number of explosive hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, many whom who having not received the usual vetting.

Democrats concerned with Sessions, a 20-year member of the Senate, so far have focused on the major gaps in his confirmation questionnaire, which nominees typically fill out before their hearings, as well as the speed at which Republicans are pushing through the nomination.

A number of lawmakers as well as outside groups have also expressed misgivings about Sessions’ record and hardline stances on civil rights, immigration, criminal justice and LGBT rights.

Ahead of Sessions’ hearing, which will begin with his testimony before moving on to other witnesses, here’s a look at what issues are expected to come up.

1. Sessions’ record on civil rights as a U.S. attorney

Sessions’ opponents are quick to point out that in the mid-1980s, the senator — then an U.S. attorney — was withdrawn as a nominee to a federal judgeship over claims that he made racist and derogatory comments about civil rights groups.

These comments may came up again, as could allegations since that Sessions was not as involved in civil rights cases as a U.S. attorney as his supporters claim he was.

2. Voting rights

Since becoming a senator, Sessions has shown skepticism toward the Voting Rights Act, which was gutted in a 2013 Supreme Court decision that originated in Alabama but nonetheless is a tool the Department of Justice has used to block states’ from passing discriminatory voting restrictions. Sessions had previously voted to renew it in 2006, but it 2013 said that had it “was probably too long an extension because there’s just huge areas of the South where there’s no problem.”

But even before he was the senator, Sessions’ critics say he has stood in the way of voting rights, pointing particularly to his involvement in a case that sought to prosecute civil rights advocates who had been leading a voter outreach drive in the African American community.

3. Criminal justice reform

As criminal justice reform advocates have been able to win over some influential Republicans, like Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sessions has attacked criminal justice reform legislation that was supported by a spectrum ranging from the Koch brothers to the ACLU. Sessions is also a staunch defender of civil forfeiture, the government practice of taking the property of suspected criminals without going through the judicial process.

Relatedly, Sessions has criticized the movement to decriminalize marijuana, raising questions about how he would approach the federal government’s position on states that have legalized marijuana.

4. Immigration

Democrats are likely to bring up Sessions’ hardline stances on immigration, which include opposing not just overhaul bills that would address undocumented immigrants in the United States, but advocating a decrease in legal immigration as well.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said last week Sessions “has been more anti-immigration than just about any other single member of Congress.”

Additionally, Democrats may be bring up Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration at the hearing.

5. Gay rights

Sessions has voted against a whole variety of pro-LGBT measures, putting him at odds with the Obama-era Department of Justice that prioritized the protection of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Among other things, he has voted in favor of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which would override the Supreme Court’s decision to grant gay couples the right to marry. He also voted against measures to expand the legal definition of hate crimes to include people who are targeted for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

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