Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sessions’ island of reaction

The AG’s ‘aloha-baiting’ highlights his damaging positions

- E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (ejdionne@washpost.com).

IWASHINGTO­N magine if I began a column about Attorney General Jeff Sessions this way: “I really am amazed that an attorney general who hails from a former Confederat­e state in the Deep South can issue a series of orders wrecking efforts to reform police practices, cutting back on voting rights and restarting the war on drugs.”

The specifics of what Mr. Sessions is up to are accurate, but that knock on the land of cotton would leave my inbox bulging with rebukes to bigotry against Dixie, and I’d probably get many YouTube links to Lynyrd Skynyrd singing “Sweet Home Alabama.” (Don’t go to the trouble. I already have the song on my iPhone.)

Yet the man whose job is to be the top lawyer for all of us said something very similar about a federal judge in Hawaii who blocked President Donald Trump’s travel ban. For the record, here is Mr. Sessions’ islophobic sentence:

“I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constituti­onal power.”

The obvious problem in Mr. Sessions’ comments, made to conservati­ve talk show host Mark Levin (and unearthed by CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski), is that Hawaii is a state like every other and has been in the union for 58 years, as Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, helpfully pointed out. Are newer states inferior to older ones?

There is also the Trump administra­tion habit of trying to discredit any judge who rules against it, the stuff of autocratic regimes. Members of the executive branch have every right to criticize and appeal lowercourt decisions, but what Mr. Sessions suggested is that Derrick Watson, the federal judge in question, somehow lost his right to rule because of where his court is located.

Hawaii has been a special place in conservati­ve demonology because many on the right, once they had to concede that President Barack Obama was actually born there and not in Kenya, wanted to hold on to the idea that he came into the world in a location that was, well, different.

And Mr. Sessions may have picked up his antiHawaii cues from right-wing media, which reported that Mr. Obama had “unexpected­ly” flown alone to Hawaii on March 13, two days before Judge Watson issued his ruling, and that Judge Watson just happened to go to Harvard Law School with the former president.

The conservati­vetreehous­e.com blog asked: “Coincidenc­es? Or did President Obama travel to Hawaii to initiate, facilitate, or participat­e in the decision by Judge Watson?” On March 16, Rush Limbaugh got the story out there and then insisted that he wouldn’t traffic in speculatio­n. “I want to mention also Barack Obama has been in Hawaii the past few days,” he said, but added, “I don’t know if Obama met with the judge.” Nicely played, Rush.

Here’s one good thing that could come from Mr. Sessions’ aloha-baiting: It might start focusing attention on the rest of that opening sentence and the damage the attorney general is inflicting. Doing so would belie the idea that Mr. Trump is somehow becoming more “moderate.”

Mr. Sessions has started switching the Justice Department’s stance on voting rights cases, away from minority plaintiffs and in favor of states that passed discrimina­tory measures such as voter ID laws restrictin­g access to the ballot. The new DOJ stance did not stop District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos from declaring earlier this month that Texas’ strict voter ID law “was passed, at least in part, with a discrimina­tory purpose.” Thank goodness Judge Ramos can’t be criticized as one of those island judges.

Mr. Sessions also ordered department officials to review reform agreements between its civil rights division and troubled police forces nationwide, an Obama-era initiative aimed at restoring community confidence in the police after a series of shootings of unarmed black men.

Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, called the move “terrifying,” but in a USA Today op-ed last week, Mr. Sessions invoked classic law-and-order rhetoric, saying he would “not sign consent decrees for political expediency that will cost more lives by handcuffin­g the police instead of the criminals.”

And as Sari Horwitz reported in The Washington Post, Mr. Sessions is bringing back the old war on drugs, thus stopping in its tracks a once-promising criminal justice reform movement of conservati­ves, liberals and libertaria­ns concerned with over-incarcerat­ion, particular­ly in AfricanAme­rican communitie­s.

You don’t have to live on an island to worry about what Mr. Sessions is doing in the name of justice.

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