Senate confirmation hearings will begin today over the nomination of Jeff Sessions, of all people, as Attorney General of the United States. This makes some people who are concerned about criminal law reform and civil rights angry. It’s understandable, as Jeff Sessions represents none of the qualities in an AG that we would hope for. But what did we expect? Did anyone seriously think Trump was going to nominate Ramsey Clark?
Will Sessions be as awful an AG as anticipated? Maybe. Maybe not. There are issues that should, under other circumstances, make his confirmation hearings contentious, such as his omissions on his disclosures, not to mention the same reasons why the Senate refused to confirm him as a federal judge. They will be raised. Sessions will be confirmed anyway.
And Sessions will join a group of others who served in the office of Attorney General. Like Dick Thornburgh, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez. Remember them? They sucked, each and every one of them, if your concern was criminal law reform and civil rights. But it’s not just that we survived them, but that there was neither shock nor surprise that conservative presidents appointed conservative attorneys general. It’s what they do. It’s what they were expected to do.
If you want someone to be angry about, furious about, you’re looking at the wrong guy. Don’t blame Trump for nominating Sessions. Don’t blame Sessions for being Sessions. If you want someone to blame, blame Eric Holder. Blame Loretta Lynch. Blame Barack Obama.
By some weird quirk of human nature, some loyalty to team, some delusion, we magically forget that we’re closing out eight years of a progressive Democratic administration. The first two years, you may recall, gave the president a Congress of his own party. But the next six were still under attorneys general who professed all the empathies we could want in an AG.
These were the attorneys general who were supposed to preside over the reforms so critically necessary. Everything from reformation of junk science in the courtroom to removal of marijuana from Schedule I, from the eradication of mandatory minimums to the reformation of law enforcement tactics to conform to constitutional rights.
Eric Holder. Loretta Lynch. These were the attorneys general who should have fixed things. They failed. They refused. And you’re angry with Jeff Sessions? What are you thinking?
Many of you gushed with hope and change when the AGs mouthed the words our ears so desperately wanted to hear. Yes, yes, it’s finally going to happen. And then . . . nothing. There is a trick that government officials learned long ago, that points are scored by saying the words advocates pray for, and they will sing your praises even if you don’t actually do a damn thing, make any change, fix a problem.
Putting aside the irony that the same feds who look so adorable now were the ones committing the atrocities of their time, one of the few faux changes of the Obama administration was the writing of scathing reports about civil rights violations by police. Journalists loved these reports, as they provided great quotes and validated their stories about the evils of police.
This produced bias that blinded writers. They were reports, after the fact, that did nothing. They were mere words. No one was saved. Nothing changed. Police chiefs would hold solemn press conferences where they would promise to do better, praise the Constitution and explain how vital it was to humanity that all lives mattered. It was so thrilling that no one noticed that not a single cop on the street changed a single thing that he did. Ever.
My good buddy, Radley Balko, who’s been surprisingly emotional about Sessions’ nomination, wrote about Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s rejection of the PCAST report, just as Eric Holder rejected the 2009 National Academies of Science report before her. These weren’t far out reports, but reflected the clear assertion of the scientific community that we were convicting people by the use of invalid forensic science, manufactured for the purpose of conviction and in flagrant conflict with anything remotely scientific.
Radley called Lynch’s refusal to recognize science “at odds” with President Obama’s self-congratulatory magnum opus. Had it been Sessions who rejected science, the characterization might be a bit more harsh. But since it was the beloved Democratic savior of criminal law, the blow was, shall we say, mild.
Who do you think is going to be the champion for reform, for science, for undoing the machinery of death, for ending the pretense of safety at the expense of constitutional rights? Who should have been the Attorney General to finally remove marijuana from Schedule I? Who should have never started giving MRAPs to police departments with seven cops? Who should have ended the policy of charging every federal criminal defendant with the highest possible charge to coerce pleas and cooperation regardless of guilt?
Who the hell did you think was going to fix these things? Sessions?
But Holder didn’t. Lynch didn’t. Obama didn’t. We had eight years of an administration that could have, should have, reformed the things that everyone conceded needed reforming. Hell, even law enforcement “leaders” put on their own dog and pony shows to let us know they were wrong. The iron was hot. The people who were supposed to be better held office, had the power to change things. The stars were aligned. And . . . nothing.
Will Jeff Sessions be the savior of criminal law? Of course not. But then, Trump never promised to reform the law, never suggested he would do anything other than put a guy like Sessions into office. What about this surprises you? Will Sessions be worse than Holder and Lynch? Probably, but then, aside from not mouthing the words that warm the cockles of advocates’ hearts, what could he do on the ground that would be much different from the past eight years?
We had eight years of the “good guys.” We got, essentially, squat. If you want a direction for your outrage, blame the people who should have known better and failed you, not the person whom no one expects to fix anything. Your problem shouldn’t be with Jeff Sessions, but with the cesspool he’ll take over once he’s confirmed.