On Tuesday, the first of Donald Trump’s many controversial nominees is set to begin confirmation hearings. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) will be vetted to head the Department of Justice. And many criminal justice advocates, civil rights groups, and even the New York Times editorial board are hoping that Democrats will wage a strong challenge to Sessions’ post, both due to allegations of racism in his past as well as his current stances on civil rights issues.
Here are five things everyone should know about Sessions before lawmakers decide if he’s fit to lead the Department of Justice.
1. Sessions on sentencing reform
Sen. Sessions gets credit for his support of overturning the racist sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine (even though he’s defended the War on Drugs, which helped flood America’s jails and prisons with low-level users). However, the senator has opposed the bipartisan push for broader criminal justice reform, as the Marshall Project points out. Sessions said it would set free “violent felons.”
He’s also blasted President Obama’s clemency initiative, which is designed to reduce the sentences of non-violent drug offenders.
“The President is playing a dangerous game to advance his political ideology,” Sessions fumed in a news release about the clemency program. In fact, prisoner advocates have criticized the Obama administration for not commuting enough sentences of nonviolent drug prisoners.
2. Sessions on marijuana
On November 8th, voters in multiple states approved some version of legal pot, an electoral outcome reflecting national public opinion; a survey conducted in March found that 61 percent of Americans support legalization of marijuana. The legalization and decriminalization of marijuana has endless ramifications, from the growth of legal markets that generate tax revenue to helping lower the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses.
Sessions’ public comments on pot suggest the senator’s mindset is stuck in the “Just Say No” mode of the 1980s. During Senate hearings in April, Sessions declared that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” He called the drug a “very real danger.”
“And you’ll see cocaine and heroin increase more than it would have, I think,” he added. In fact, multiple studies have shown that marijuana is not a gateway drug.
And Sessions can cause real damage to the legalization movement. He can overturn the Cole memo, a 2013 pledge by the Department of Justice that the federal government wouldn’t go after vendors in states where the drug is legal. He could also pursue asset forfeiture—where authorities can seize property linked to the commission of a crime—against pot sellers.
3. Sessions’ on immigration
In response to the election of Trump, officials in several cities have pledged to protect immigrants. But there are many ways they might be powerless to do so in the face of federal action undertaken by the Justice Department. As the Marshall Project notes, the Justice Department plays a substantial role in immigration enforcement: they determine how to prosecute undocumented immigrants and could stop federal money from reaching “sanctuary cities.”
On his website, Sessions boasts of his toughness on immigration:
Sessions was a leading opponent of the 2007 amnesty bill and 2013 “Gang of Eight” amnesty bill. The Gang of Eight bill eviscerated immigration enforcement, opened up welfare and citizenship to millions of illegals aliens, issued an astonishing 33 million green cards in a single decade, and doubled the annual flow of temporary workers to fill jobs at lower wages.
Sessions has also been a leading opponent of President Obama’s unconstitutional executive amnesties, which gives jobs and benefits to illegal workers at the expense of struggling families.
Also, Sessions was lobbying for a wall along the border—one of Trump’s most famous campaign promises—way back in the 1990s, when the president-elect appeared mostly focused on saving money on his tax returns.
4. Sessions’ views on voting rights
The senator’s nomination does not bode well for voting rights, which are already under attack by conservative legislators who’ve pushed through voter ID laws and worked to purge voters from registration rolls.
Although he had voted to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act in the past, he’s also called it “a piece of intrusive legislation.” In the 1980s, he brought charges against activists helping elderly black people to vote.
5. Sessions views on race more generally
Critics of Sessions’ nomination to the Justice Department point out that the senators’ most controversial positions might be driven by his views on race. Politico reports that members of the Congressional Black Caucus might be called to testify on Sessions’ record on race, perhaps highlighting accusations that he called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American,”—one of many racially insensitive remarks he’s alleged to have made. He’s also been accused of calling a white civil rights attorney a “disgrace to his race.”