The questions raised by President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, center not on his ideology but on his priorities.
One of the most conservative members of the Senate, representing one of the nation’s most conservative states, Sessions can be expected to be faithful to conservative orthodoxy. The issue is how he will choose to deploy the vast resources of the department known as the world’s largest law firm, with more than 10,000 lawyers. Three policy areas will help the Senate determine the answer: immigration, marijuana and voting rights.
On immigration, illegal and otherwise, Sessions has been a critic. Sessions has decried what he calls the “Silicon Valley STEM hoax,” arguing that the nation has no shortage of skilled technology workers. It’s true that some companies have exploited the system, using it to replace American workers with cheaper foreign labor. It’s also true that the US is engaged in a fierce global competition to attract talented, high-skilled workers who can drive innovation and expand economic growth.
How would Sessions recommend that the Trump administration police abuses without shutting off access to talent?
On illegal immigration, Sessions has long complained that President Barack Obama’s administration was lax in enforcing the law. Yet the population of undocumented immigrants in the US has declined in the past eight years. Sessions has broad authority, as attorney general, to radically revise immigration enforcement and the immigration court system. How does he plan to proceed -- and how will he protect the due-process rights of those already in the US?
Sessions has also expressed a desire to rescind Obama’s executive actions easing deportations for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children. These are young people in whom the US has invested, though education, and many of them are contributing members of their communities. What moral, economic or legal goal is advanced by deporting them?
Sessions would face a similar dilemma on marijuana enforcement. More than half the states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. The cannabis industry is projected to reach $50 billion by 2026.
Sessions has been an opponent of legalization, a position that makes sense from a public-health point of view. Does he have a strategy to reverse the Obama administration’s policy of ignoring states where marijuana cultivation and use is permitted? If not, how does he intend to prosecute a crime that is endorsed by a growing number of states?
Last, and arguably most important, is the issue of voting rights. By limiting early voting and registration, Republicans in states such as North Carolina and Texas are working to restrict access to the ballot box, but under Obama the Justice Department has remained committed to protecting voting rights. How does Sessions propose to extend that protection? One needn’t accept the view, proffered by some critics, that he is a racist in order to be disturbed by Sessions’ apparent lack of interest in securing the cornerstone of American democracy.
Sessions is expected to win confirmation from his colleagues. That is their right, but before voting they should demand clear answers to these and other questions.