One of the House’s most powerful Republicans had some interesting things to say on domestic violence during a recent event back in his district.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), the chairman of the influential House Rules Committee, told a social conservative activist who was pushing him to support the end of no-fault divorce that the way the family court system in Dallas used to process cases had led to some tragic consequences. To illustrate his point that the system had badly needed change, he used a baffling example.
“Dallas County, a few years ago, went through a number of terrible shootings. And I gathered together, they were at the time Republican district judges, and I said ‘guys, men, women, we’ve now had I think four or five shootings.’ One of them was from a big-time guy in Highland Park, who went and killed his wife, just gunned her down. And that was because the judge was unfair, and the woman was unfair. And she demanded something, and he was out. And it was frustration,” Sessions said during a local GOP event earlier this summer. “So now we go through the court system. And unfortunately lives have to be lost and there has to be tragedy — there now is a better system.”
The remarks come at the 1:55 mark in the video.
It’s unclear what specific case Sessions is referring to in the video, filmed by local conservative activist Jeff Morgan at the Greater Garland Republican Organization on June 23. Sessions’ staff declined to name the specific case, though there were a number of domestic violence-related murders in the region around that time.
Sessions is facing his first real reelection battle in years against civil rights attorney and former NFL player Colin Allred, in a traditionally Republican district in suburban Dallas that Hillary Clinton carried with a narrow plurality in 2016.
Sessions’ spokeswoman said that the congressman didn’t mean to suggest any sympathy for the man in the case he cited, before highlighting his work to prevent domestic violence.
“Pete was discussing a terrible situation where an individual felt he had been railroaded by a court and then committed a horrific act of violence. By no means does Pete condone any act such as this,” Sessions Chief of Staff Caroline Boothe told TPM.
“In fact, Pete met with judges and court officials to encourage them to address the frailties in the system and to do more to prevent this kind of tragic family violence from occurring.”
It’s not fully clear what the context is from the video alone, and Sessions is well known around Washington for making difficult-to-decipher comments. Reporters regularly rely on ellipses when quoting him because of his frequent use of tangents and dry, esoteric sense of humor.
The lawmaker also seemed caught off-guard by Morgan’s line of questioning. The activist pushed Sessions to support efforts to curtail no-fault divorce laws that in his eyes has led to the breakdown of the family unit. Sessions at one point said “I’m not prepared for this,” and he later asked Morgan for “a chance to bone up on” the issue.
But it’s clear that Sessions’ staff wasn’t pleased that these particular comments were made public.
Morgan told TPM that Sessions’ staff had asked him not to post the full video of the event after he filmed it, so he edited a shorter version that he posted online. That version includes some abrupt fades and cuts — but none during these particular remarks. When TPM asked to see the full, unedited video of the event, Morgan passed along that request to Sessions’ staff. He said they responded by asking him to take the video offline.
“I talked to the Sessions people last week and they did not want me to make it [the video] public. In fact, they event want me to take down the other one,” he said. “They just don’t want anything out there prior to the election.”
Sessions’ staff didn’t deny that they’d asked for the video to be pulled down, and refused to share Sessions’ full remarks from the meeting with TPM to offer more clarity on his comments. They also declined to make him available to discuss or explain his remarks.
But Sessions’ staff did connect TPM with Patti Ransone, a Republican and a local activist on the Dallas County Domestic Violence Task Force, who said that the comments didn’t reflect the man she knew, before highlighting Sessions’ earlier work on domestic violence prevention.
That includes the meeting Sessions called that led to the creation of an additional domestic violence court in Dallas County in the early 2000s, as well as his work with local domestic violence shelters, Ransone said. He supported the push for the “Call To Protect” charitable program, which gathered donated cell phones for domestic violence victims so they could call 911 if needed. Sessions, who before politics worked at Southwestern Bell, earned a 2001 award from the CTIA, the wireless communications industry’s trade and lobbying association, for his work supporting that program.
“I worked with him in the late ’90s through the mid-2000s, and he’s done nothing but try to help the community become more aware with domestic violence,” Ransone said of the congressman. She said they met at a local “Call To Protect” event, and he’d agreed to write letters thanking the volunteers in her group that monitored local domestic violence courts.
Sessions’ staff also sent along a statement from Paige Flink, the head of The Family Place — Dallas’ largest domestic violence shelter. In it, she thanked him for “the support and responsiveness he has shown about the issues facing victims of domestic violence,” and said he helped the organization secure renewal of a transitional housing grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that allowed them to maintain 33 housing unites for families fleeing domestic violence.
Sessions did vote against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, joining a majority of Republicans who opposed the bill, ostensibly because of new provisions that would allow Native American tribes to prosecute non-tribal members.
The comments weren’t the only curious ones Sessions makes in the six-minute video.
After mentioning his support of law-and-order Republicans like Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who in earlier campaigns as Texas attorney general crusaded against “deadbeat dads” who didn’t pay child support, Sessions said that law didn’t always work.
“I remember giving to John Cornyn, and he touted how many deadbeat dads. But I’ll tell you, there’s also at least one example of a deadbeat dad that paid $19,000 a month, because he got railroaded. He had, I think, an aneurysm that precluded him from going to work for seven months. He’d paid $19,000, he was paying everything he could, he had a big job,” he said. “He was a lawyer, he could not go to work and the judge put him in jail. They did not acknowledge loss of income.”
Sessions’ father, William Sessions, is a former judge and FBI director.
The congressman’s staff declined to say whether Sessions had taken a look at no-fault divorce, which is the law of the land in all 50 states — New York was the last to adopt it in 2010, though most others had embraced it in the 1970s. Social conservatives argue that this sea change in law drove a major uptick in the divorce rate, damaging families, while others say that states with no-fault divorce have lower perjury rates during divorce proceedings (since you don’t need to fabricate a reason to get divorced), and one study by liberal economists found that no-fault divorce leads to a drop in domestic violence rates and female suicide rates.
One of Morgan’s arguments was his claim that 26 of the last 28 school shooters came from single-parent homes.
Sessions made an interesting remark about one of those shootings, that took place in Santa Fe High School outside Houston this past May.
“I’ll tell you, the biggest thing we’re learning out of that shooting is, if you go to Santa Fe High School now, those parents, they’re going to be held legally responsible for what their son did. And you’re a dad, we’re dads, I’m a dad. I went through, my son, we had a party at the house one night. I get it, where if somebody had a problem leaving there I could be held legally responsible. I mean, I was there. Hoo, I turned gray overnight,” he said.