Ses­sions pushes for­ward in storm.

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­DREA NOBLE

The Jus­tice De­part­ment has had per­haps the rough­est ride of any Cabi­net branch dur­ing the first 100 days of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, fac­ing hos­tile judges who have blocked the pres­i­dent’s im­mi­gra­tion plans, the ouster of the act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral and even ac­cu­sa­tions of racism lev­eled against Jeff Ses­sions dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for at­tor­ney gen­eral.

But the de­part­ment, work­ing arm in arm with the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, also has cov­ered the most ground when it comes to im­ple­ment­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pri­or­i­ties. Mr. Ses­sions has been able to re­verse course on Obama-era poli­cies, in­clud­ing de­ploy­ing more im­mi­gra­tion judges to the bor­der and pri­or­i­tiz­ing pros­e­cu­tions of il­le­gal im­mi­grants who com­mit crimes in or­der to speed up de­por­ta­tions, step­ping back from use of court-en­forced agree­ments meant to guide lo­cal po­lice re­forms, and re­scind­ing or­ders that would have phased out the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s use of pri­vate pris­ons.

“Jeff Ses­sions may have in­her­ited the most dif­fi­cult pe­riod of any modern at­tor­ney gen­eral,” said Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor Jonathan Tur­ley. “But I think Gen­eral Ses­sions has tried to bring some greater sta­bil­ity and or­der to the de­part­ment.”

To ob­servers of the Ses­sions Jus­tice De­part­ment, one of the most no­table changes has been the shift in how of­fi­cials talk about vi­o­lent crime. Though crime rates re­main at near his­toric lows, Mr. Ses­sions and Mr. Trump have voiced con­cern about a grow­ing crime wave — point­ing to in­creases in vi­o­lent crime and homi­cides in some ma­jor cities in 2015 and the first half of 2016. Cam­paign prom­ises to re­store “law and or­der” have in turn led to calls for crack­downs on drug car­tels and il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

“A lot of it has been lay­ing the foun­da­tion for things to come — the way the ad­min­is­tra­tion talks about crime and talks about drugs,” said Ames Graw­ert, coun­sel at the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice Pro­gram. “That’s a big shift in rhetoric. What we have seen is us­ing that fear and idea of a crime wave … to try to jus­tify what the ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to do in rolling back some Obama-era crim­i­nal jus­tice poli­cies.”

That has in­cluded a more heavy­handed ap­proach to deal­ing with im­mi­gra­tion crimes. Dur­ing his first visit to the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der as at­tor­ney gen­eral in April, Mr. Ses­sions touted the de­ploy­ment of 25 im­mi­gra­tion judges to the bor­der to help re­duce the back­log of de­por­ta­tion cases and plans to hire 125 more. He has also in­structed pros­e­cu­tors to pri­or­i­tize charges against il­le­gal im­mi­grants with his­to­ries of il­le­gally cross­ing the bor­der into the U.S. and threat­ened to cut fed­eral fund­ing from ju­ris­dic­tions with “sanc­tu­ary” poli­cies that ham­per co­op­er­a­tion with fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion agents.

Other ef­forts are seen as more sym­bolic. Three early ex­ec­u­tive or­ders is­sued by Mr. Trump are meant to “re­duce crime and re­store pub­lic safety.” Though they in­clude few concrete pol­icy changes, Mr. Graw­ert said, the or­ders give the at­tor­ney gen­eral carte blanche to chart a new path for­ward on crim­i­nal jus­tice pol­icy.

Where rhetoric has trans­lated into ac­tion, op­po­nents of Mr. Trump’s poli­cies said the Jus­tice De­part­ment has fore­cast a dis­cour­ag­ing path for­ward when it comes to civil rights.

“The De­part­ment of Jus­tice has moved with dis­turb­ing speed to re­verse many of the po­si­tions it took dur­ing the prior ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Sher­ri­lyn Ifill, pres­i­dent of the NAACP Le­gal De­fense Fund.

Case in point, she said, was the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s an­nounce­ment of a sys­temwide re­view of ac­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tions of trou­bled law en­force­ment agen­cies and its at­tempt to scut­tle ap­proval of a court-stip­u­lated agree­ment to re­form the Bal­ti­more Po­lice De­part­ment.

A fed­eral judge ul­ti­mately signed off on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion-bro­kered agree­ment, a move sup­ported by the city’s mayor and po­lice com­mis­sioner. But civil rights ad­vo­cates worry that ef­forts to re­form of trou­bled agen­cies and pros­e­cute of­fi­cers who will grind to a halt un­der Mr. Ses­sions.

The re­cep­tion hasn’t been all bad though, as the nation’s largest po­lice union views the com­mit­ment to reeval­u­ate whether timely and of­ten costly con­sent de­crees are the best so­lu­tions.

“We are very much heart­ened and en­cour­aged by the ini­tia­tives thus far and hope he is able to build mo­men­tum,” said Jim Pasco, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice. “He may come at it from a more con­ser­va­tive per­spec­tive, but that’s what makes the world go ’round.”

An­a­lysts say part of what has made Mr. Ses­sions ef­fec­tive at the head of the de­part­ment is his pre­dictabil­ity. The poli­cies he is pur­su­ing are the same he has spent years ad­vo­cat­ing dur­ing his time in the Se­nate and as a U.S. at­tor­ney.

“If you had to pick some­one to im­ple­ment a law-and-or­der agenda and know what he was do­ing and be ded­i­cated to the tough-on-crime rhetoric, it’s Jeff Ses­sions,” Mr. Graw­ert said. “He had an idea of what he wanted to do go­ing in, so it’s less sur­pris­ing he was able to do so much of it in the first 100 days.”

Other changes in­clude re­scind­ing of an Obama-era memo that would have ended the gov­ern­ment’s use of pri­vate pris­ons, some­thing ac­tivists read as a sig­nal that more beds will be needed to house an im­pend­ing in­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple be­hind bars. The Jus­tice De­part­ment also re­versed its years­long fed­eral sup­port for a le­gal chal­lenge to Texas’ tough­est-in-the-nation voter iden­ti­fi­ca­tion law, an “as­ton­ish­ing” about-face for the groups that pre­vi­ously ar­gued along­side the de­part­ment, Ms. Ifill said.

One area that has proved to be a stum­bling block for the Jus­tice De­part­ment has been its de­fense of some of Mr. Trump’s most con­tro­ver­sial ex­ec­u­tive or­ders, in­clud­ing the tem­po­rary ban on refugee re­set­tle­ment and travel by for­eign na­tion­als to the U.S. from six ma­jor­ity Mus­lim coun­tries. The first and se­cond ver­sions of the or­der were met with a flurry of law­suits brought by im­mi­grant and civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates. Jus­tice De­part­ment lawyers were tasked with de­fend­ing the first or­der even be­fore Mr. Ses­sions was sworn in, but since his con­fir­ma­tion they have been un­able to per­suade fed­eral judges to let the re­vised ver­sion of the or­der to go into ef­fect.

The swell of re­sis­tance dur­ing Mr. Trump’s first months in of­fice may have slowed the roll­out of other pro­pos­als, par­tic­u­larly a plan to han­dle the med­i­cal and recre­ational mar­i­juana in­dus­tries, ob­servers say.

Mr. Ses­sions has long made clear that he op­poses mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion and be­lieves the drug is dan­ger­ous. He has re­peated th­ese po­si­tions nu­mer­ous times since tak­ing the helm at the Jus­tice De­part­ment.

“It is some­what sur­pris­ing to see Gen­eral Ses­sions raise the is­sue of mar­i­juana so force­fully. His de­part­ment is al­ready stretched fairly thin across sev­eral fronts from im­mi­gra­tion to sanc­tu­ary cities,” Mr. Tur­ley said.

Sup­port for med­i­cal and recre­ational mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion is polling high, even in states Mr. Trump won. Le­gal mar­kets are reap­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in rev­enue, and Repub­li­cans are sup­port­ive of states’ rights.

Re­peal­ing Obama-era poli­cies that al­lowed the mar­kets to de­velop and pros­per could be­come a quag­mire for the ad­min­is­tra­tion. To con­tinue with the for­ward mo­men­tum on pol­icy pri­or­i­ties, Mr. Ses­sions might be bet­ter ad­vised to look the other way on mar­i­juana for now and ded­i­cate Jus­tice De­part­ment re­sources to the bat­tles it is cur­rently fight­ing rather than cre­at­ing new fronts, Mr. Tur­ley said.

“To throw mar­i­juana poli­cies into that mix could un­der­mine all of th­ese ef­forts,” Mr. Tur­ley said. “You can’t go to war with every­one.”

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